This piece was first published on http://globalnation.inquirer.net/24945/republican-gladiators on February 4, 2012.
If you haven’t been following the Republican presidential primaries, you’re missing a fascinating distraction from the sluggish impeachment of Ate Glo’s midnight-appointed corony in the Philippine Supreme Court.
What started out as a clumsy free-for-all among half-a-dozen GOP presidential aspirants has devolved into a bare-knuckle duel between two frontrunners, who are pounding each other with ever-increasing ferocity. There’s blood, and no one’s crying “No mas” (not even for the sake of Latino outreach).
They’re using tridents, maces, axes, halberds, the kitchen sink, and it makes 2008’s Obama vs. Clinton primary look like so much playground teasing.
Mitt Romney has called Newt Gingrich a “sad” influence peddler and a bumbling “Lucille Ball at the chocolate factory.” Gingrich called Romney “a liar” and, with an eye to Jewish retirees, accused him of denying kosher food to Holocaust survivors who are on Medicare. Wow. After his Florida defeat, Gingrich didn’t even bother making an obligatory concession phone call to Romney. Instead, he promised more scorched-earth warfare in “46 states.”
Republican royalty aren’t amused by the continued bloodletting. They worry that the GOP could be locked in a self-destructive mode, and they’re mostly blaming Gingrich. “He has a new idea every minute,” mocks Bob Dole. John McCain laments that the debates—19 so far and with more to come—are very damaging to the party as a whole.
Even Fox News host Chris Wallace called the primary debates “idiotic,” (unwittingly echoing Fidel Castro, who railed at the “idiocy and ignorance” of the contenders, presumably because the debaters even argued over whether Castro’s soul was going to go to Heaven or to Hell).
But if there’s so much “idiocy,” distortion, and jockeying for the applause of rightwing mobs it’s because the debates concentrate the vitriol and lack of civility that conservative extremists have brought into the U.S. political process. The biggest bomb-thrower thus far has been the humility-challenged and grandiose Gingrich.
And the GOP establishment only has itself to blame for the clout of a now-muscular rightwing base that’s currently shaping the party’s inner political culture. The party is experiencing blowback from its successful “Southern strategy” of the past 46 years. The gambit has come home to roost, and it’s pooping on the parlor floor.
With the Southern strategy, the GOP successfully split away conservative and racist whites from what was an uneasily multiracial Democratic base, thereby decisively ending the Democratic Party’s traditional dominance in the American South.
By excluding blacks’ concerns from the GOP platforms—and using racially coded political messaging, such as “celebrating the Confederacy,” “Willie Horton ads” featuring a furloughed black convict, “state’s rights,” etc.—GOP strategists like the late Lee Atwater turned conservative Southern whites into a solid pillar of the party. Alienated, blacks stuck it out with the Democrats but saw their political power in the region greatly diminished.
But as the downside of the Southern strategy’s success, the GOP now has two distinct wings battling for supremacy within.
On the one hand are college educated, middle-to-upper-class high earners who are fiscally conservative but socially right-of-center, represented by the likes of the Doles, the elder Bush, and the McCains.
Today’s crop of leading Republican “moderates” includes the likes of Chris Christie, Jon Huntsman–and Mitt Romney. This wing has long dominated the party, but accommodating, even blessing, conservative extremism is the quid it relinquished for the Southern strategy quo.
The result it the vociferous contending wing–the GOP strategy’s Frankenstein monster. It comprises lower- stratum, blue-collar whites united by rigid positions on social issues like abortion, school prayer, the teaching of evolution, and sexuality. Exemplifying the fascist strain in American politics, it includes Christian mullahs, implicit or explicit racists, isolationists, and Tea Party stalwarts.
Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, and Rick Santorum are the stars of this wing. But Newt Gingrich, although not a true social conservative, has successfully drawn much support from it by capitalizing on its distaste for elites and suspicion of Romney as a “stealth liberal.”
If there’s so much vicious infighting now in the Republican Party it’s because the primaries are more than just about choosing the best candidate to run against President Obama. They’re part of the protracted fight for the soul of the GOP and the definition of American conservatism.
As for the leading contenders for the presidential nomination, if you’re not a conservative (or if you’re not a Filipino immigrant who believes that becoming a Republican is the height of assimilation and success) there’s little to like in either aspirant.
Romney is a fat cat who earned $42 million the last two years but paid lower taxes–13 percent in 2010–than the average working stiff who earns only $40,000 a year but paid up to 35 percent.
With an undisclosed income from a Swiss bank account and tax-sheltered holdings in the Cayman Islands, he’s not someone who’s asking what he can do for his country. He is, however, a perfect specimen of the rich adherents of the GOP’s foundational principle of caring very little for the have-nots.
Romney is wont to make statements that highlight his lack of the common touch. “I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there,” is his latest gaffe.
Gingrich is an egotistical demagogue, who had to leave Congress due to ethics violations. An ethics committee dominated by his fellow Republicans had to fine him $300,000 for fiddling with nonprofit fronts for political fundraising. Social conservatives are flocking to him now—and willing to ignore his “sinful” past–because he projects the shrillest voice against Romney.
A thrice-married ladies’ man, Gingrich famously denounced Bill Clinton for Monicavorting and undermining moral values, while he himself was doing bedroom Callisthenics with the mistress who’s now his wife. He even asked his second wife for an “open” marriage so he could sleep around without theoretically committing adultery.
Gingrich’s excuse for his hypocrisy? “There’s no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate.” Ask not what you can do for your country, but what women other than your wife can do for you.
Patriotism made him do it. It’s almost better than the Costa Concordia captain’s excuse for leaving his ship ahead of stricken passengers: “I tripped and fell into a lifeboat.”
Besides their doubts about the ability of either Romney or Gingrich to defeat Obama, Republican elders also worry that Gingrich and the social conservatives would fight all the way to the GOP convention and weaken the party strategically.
In fact, given the deep anti-Romney feelings in the Republican right wing, a breakaway third party looms as a possibility. If that should happen it would be a catastrophe for the GOP on November 6. More than a month ahead of the Mayan doomsday.
Okay, the floor is now open for furious comments and insults from the rightwing response network.