Friday, July 10, 2015

The People, The Party, And The Upstarts

     Now and then a badly infected body will erupt in boils. The boils aren’t the disease, of course, but a symptom thereof. However, one with a superficial understanding of infectious disease might think otherwise. He might try to treat the boils as if they, and only they, were “what’s wrong with me.” And he would be confounded by the persistence of the boils, which would return, fresh crop after fresh crop, no matter how hard he might try to scrub them away.

     Just now there’s a lot of that sort of superficial thinking afoot in the Republican Party.

     The GOP’s crop of presidential aspirants has been described as unusually strong. It is...when compared to the party’s offerings during the postwar decades, the candidacy of Ronald Reagan as a conspicuous exception. But it’s not strong in an absolute sense. Comparisons to other crops of candidates from either party over the breadth of American history establish that beyond dispute.

     There are some good men in that list: the performances of Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, and Rick Perry in office mark them as standouts. However, strength as a performer in office doesn’t always translate to strength as a campaigner for the highest office in the land. Moreover, the flaccidity of the Republicans in Congress has “tainted the brand” for all Republicans, such that in many ways a GOP presidential candidate must distance himself from his party’s legislative inanition to appeal to the national electorate. This is not easy for anyone who’s held office under the Republican banner these past few years.

     Thus, there has been room for complete outsiders – upstarts – to intrude into the mix: candidates who have never held political office, who hold moderately to very conservative views, and who are willing to catechize the GOP Establishment for its go-along-to-get-along attitude. The most visible are, of course, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and the glamor boy of the moment, Donald Trump. Their lack of connection to the GOP’s kingmakers is their principal asset. It frees them to say whatever they please, without fear that the Establishment and the “donor class” will disavow them.

     “No way but up” can be a position of great leverage in politics. This is especially the case when the Establishment-connected candidates are vulnerable at one or more points...which all of them are. An upstart candidate can say so, bluntly, to great advantage, especially if he’s not nearly as concerned about winning the Republican presidential nod as he is about moving some favorite issue to the center of debate.

     Just now Donald Trump is dominating the column-inches and airwaves with his bluntly offered stance on America’s problems with illegal immigration. He’s doing so in his trademarked style: all attack, no retreat, and never qualifying a statement once he’s made it. In this fashion he’s revealed a great popular concern with the subject. In political jargon, he’s “touched a nerve.” He’s also provoked the Establishment candidates into diverting their time and energy from their preferred issues to address his statements...and they’re discovering just how dangerous it is to straddle the fence on an issue of importance to a great number of voters.

     (The “straddle the fence” phrase is generally deemed a cliché, but remember that a cliché is merely a metaphor whose associated image no longer affects the minds of hearers. if you allow the image to form in your mind’s eye, you can appreciate the agony involved. For either sex.)

     It’s not yet accurate to say that the GOP Establishment is panicking over Trump – 15% in the polls at this stage isn’t a reliable harbinger of anything, especially with so many candidates in the field – but they’re concerned. At least, they ought to be. For while hefty funding is regarded as indispensable to a national campaign, votes matter more, and the electorate has proved to be more sensitive to Trump’s favorite issue than the Establishment was willing to allow. Until now.

     Trump has little chance of becoming the Republicans’ presidential nominee. He has far too many other important involvements to pursue the campaign single-mindedly. Besides, he’s something of a one-arrow archer: only his stance on illegal immigration has resonated with the public. Yet he can participate significantly in shaping the debate entirely by the force he’s brought to his sole issue. It’s particularly significant that GOP federal legislators have been sharply divided on illegal immigration and border control. The response to Trump indicates that the voters are much less divided about it.

     This is all to the good. The Republican Party’s low esteem in people’s minds is a reflection of its performance on the issues voters care about most. Two “wave” elections that deeded the two houses of Congress firmly into Republican hands have produced essentially nothing but half-hearted acquiescence to the Obamunist agenda. ObamaCare is still with us. So are the “climate change” agenda and the flood of regulatory intrusions premised upon it. So are our enervated military, our flaccid engagement in the wars in the Middle East, the gargantuan federal deficit and the bloated federal bureaucracy sustained by it, the numerous uses of the alphabet agencies to persecute political opponents, the sense that the rule of law has fallen flat, and of course the steady rise in unemployment, underemployment, and malaise among working-age Americans who can’t find a full-time job no matter how hard they look.

     If ever there were a “time of the upstarts,” this is it. Even the candidates of very minor third parties can have a huge impact on the debate, merely by raising their voices about issues of importance to the electorate. And the Republican Establishment, currently in a panic over its new inability to control the political discourse, has no one to blame for its problems but itself.

     Partisanry in the original sense – “my party right or wrong,” and rights, justice, and fidelity to promises be damned – has reached its logical terminus. The GOP kingmakers are straining to cure the disease by suppressing the boils: the upstart candidates who are supposedly “damaging the Republican brand.” Needless to say, that has no chance whatsoever. Though the ultimate impact of the upstart candidacies cannot be confidently forecast, it will be fascinating to see if what follows from their forthrightness differs at all from the utterly unsatisfactory mess that politics has presented us since the Reagan years.

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