Wild Things

I didn’t watch the GOP debate last night, choosing instead to flip between CSI reruns and an Animal Planet show about a charmingly nutty couple and their pet hippopotamus. (Pet owners tip: Feeding your hippo too many sweet potatoes can give her diarrhea.) But judging by the Reason Magazine live blog, the GOP debate made damn fine comedy. A sample:

7:55: Sean Hannity bashes Hillary Clinton (“she’ll promise all of them a new car!”) and then asserts that Republicans “want a positive agenda.” His irony-fu is strong.

8:04: Rudy Giuliani: The real conservative, because George Will said so. As he did at the FRC conference, he mentions his war on porn in his list of conservative achievements. (An auspicious start: My server timed out and gobbled my first two debate comments.)

8:05: I suppose some people will care that Mitt Romney’s cowlick underwent structural damage right before the debate began. He’s conservative because he can bring the Republican *gutteral noise* HILLARY CLINTON HILLARY CLINTON grhgh.

8:07: Fred Thompson: Real leadership means making Ted Kennedy fat jokes. coughing and “I only got a minute here.”

Egalia of Tennessee Guerilla Women:

Wow. I’ve never seen anything like it. Eight raging hormonal white men savaging one Democratic woman.

Some Republicans might want to call this a presidential debate, I call it the eruption of a whole lot of anxious white male fear and loathing of a woman in line to take charge.

This was one rabidly he-man affair. And the seething Republican crowd was right there with them. …

… Fox News moderator Chris Wallace gave the cue for the men to beat their hairy he-man chests when he asked:

“Is she fit to be Commander-in-Chief?”

The Republican audience yelled “NO!”

The post by Paul Mirengoff of Power Tools is unintentionally hilarious; a work of brilliant if unconscious self-parody.

Thompson’s ability to slug it out with Giuliani, coupled with overall improvement in the quality of his answers, makes him one of tonight’s winners. The other major winner was John McCain. McCain brought the house down when he criticized Hillary Clinton for supporting the Woodstock memorial museum. McCain acknowledged that Woodstock must have been “a cultural and pharmaceutical event,” but noted that he couldn’t make it because he “was tied up at the time.” McCain got off another great line when asked if President Bush had been naive when it came to Vladimir Putin. McCain said he didn’t know about that, but when he (McCain) looked into Putin’s eyes (he probably meant to say soul) he saw three letters, K-G-B. In addition to the one-liners, McCain gave sensible and concise answers on a range of issues.

“Sensible and concise answers” in Rightie World means talking in complete sentences for a minute and a half while looking somber. The actual content of the talk is irrelevant. Righties only care about the red meat. More one liners! More Hillary bashing!

Despite failing to shoot down Thompson, Giuliani had another good night. Several times, he successfully tied his answers to quotes from or references to Ronald Reagan. When he’s doing that (instead of rehearsing his New York city crime fighting record), it’s a sure sign that he’s successfully defending himself on the merits as a conservative.

If you can speak reverently of Saint Ronald, you must be a real conservative.

Romney was solid, as he generally is, but didn’t say anything memorable. In response to a softball question about whether Hillary Clinton would make a good commander-in-chief, Romney talked about how he’s better than she is at running things. He thus fluffed an opportunity to attack Hillary on matters of substance.

Matters of substance, like the Woodstock memorial museum. “Better than she is at running things” sounds boring.

Near the end of the debate, he finally launched into an attack on the Clinton administration’s “vacation from history” foreign policy (“we got the dividend but not the peace”). Attacks like that are guaranteed winners in these kinds of debates, and Romney needs to make them at every opportunity.

Less boring policy wonk talk! More jokes! More chest thumping!

When they weren’t bashing Hillary Clinton to show how manly they are, the candidates squabbled over which of them was most conservative. And that takes me to a fascinating opinion piece by Michael Tomasky on the Guardian web site.

Let me offer what I think is the most important undercurrent question of next year’s election: have Americans tired of conservatism, or have they merely tired of corrupt and incompetent conservatism?

Tomasky points out that “movement conservatism” has been around since the 1950s, but not until the Bush Administration did movement conservatives have complete control of the federal government. Reagan had a Democratic Congress, and when the Republicans took over the Congress in the 1990s they had to deal with a Democratic president. Divided government moderated what the Right could achieve and provided righties with someone to blame for whatever went wrong.

Then came Bush. At first things were motoring along nicely, and Bush guru Karl Rove’s prediction that a permanent conservative majority was coalescing seemed probable. Now it has all crashed and burned for the reasons we know about. But we still don’t know what exactly is that “it”.

That is, Americans have now experienced a conservative government failing them. But what lesson will they take? That conservatism itself is exhausted and without answers to the problems that confront American and the world today? Or will they conclude that the problem hasn’t been conservatism per se, just Bush, and that a conservatism that is competent and comparatively honest will suit them just fine?

Conservatives and the Republican presidential candidates hope and argue that it’s the latter. They largely endorse and in some cases vow to expand on the Bush administration’s policies – Mitt Romney’s infamous promise to “double” the size of the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, notably. Like Bush, they vow that tax cuts, deregulation and smaller government will solve every domestic problem. Where they try to distinguish themselves from Bush is on competence. Romney talks up his corporate success, Rudy Giuliani his prowess as mayor of New York.

“Movement” conservatives have been talking up the magic powers of tax cuts and smaller government since the 1950s (before that, conservatives weren’t a “movement”). I think by now most Americans have noticed that there is no magic. There’s just talk. Bill Clinton may have been a womanizing, big-spending liberal (not really all that big spending or that liberal, of course), but by damn, the man could run a government. And Tomasky points to a fact righties want to forget: “Reagan left office with a lower approval rating than Bill Clinton did.” The “golden age” wasn’t all that golden.

In some ways liberalism/progressivism is in the same place today that conservatism was in the 1950s and 1960s. IMO the last Democratic president who pushed an unabashedly progressive domestic policy was Lyndon Johnson. Although LBJ was hugely unpopular and became the post-FDR template for big-government, tax-and-spend liberalism, I contend that much of the backlash to Johnson’s programs was less about political and economic ideology than it was about racism. In any event, a growing number of adult Americans are too young to remember what even a mildly progressive federal government was like, which makes progressivism the new new thing.

I don’t think Americans are really that averse to government programs if they can see they are getting some value from them. What they don’t like, is waste. Which brings us back to our current rule by movement conservatives — those people waste money like there’s no tomorrow. How can these whackjobs seriously think they can scare voters with the charge that Democrats will spend their tax dollars? Republicans have been burning tax dollars by the truckload on pork and an unpopular war, and there’s none left over for anything Americans want their tax dollars going to. Waste, waste, waste. I get a sense that voters are damn sick of it, especially after Katrina.

The other point of contention is taxes. A generation of Americans have been born and grown into adulthood listening to rightie propaganda that taxes must always go down. “Starve the beast,” you know. The problem is that “the beast” conservatives are starving is our country. Do read this editorial in today’s New York Times:

This country’s meager tax take puts its economic prospects at risk and leaves the government ill equipped to face the challenges from globalization.

According to a report from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, a think tank run by the industrialized countries, the taxes collected last year by federal, state and local governments in the United States amounted to 28.2 percent of gross domestic product. That rate was one of the lowest among wealthy countries — about five percentage points of G.D.P. lower than Canada’s, and more than eight points lower than New Zealand’s. And Danes, Germans and Slovaks paid more in taxes, as a share of their economies.

Politicians on the right have continuously paraded the specter of statism to rally voters’ support for tax cuts, mainly for the rich. But the meager tax take leaves the United States ill prepared to compete. From universal health insurance to decent unemployment insurance, other rich nations provide their citizens benefits that the United States government simply cannot afford.

The consequences include some 47 million Americans without health insurance and companies like General Motors being dragged to the brink by the cost of providing workers and pensioners with medical care.

President Bush and his tax-averse friends extol the fact that the tax haul has risen over the past two years as evidence of the wisdom of his tax cuts. But if anything, the numbers underscore the economy’s weaknesses — mainly its growing inequality.

Indeed, the growth in tax revenue since 2004 is due mostly to the spectacular increase in corporate profits, which have grown at the expense of workers’ wages. Moreover, it’s proving ephemeral. As economic growth has decelerated, corporate profits are losing steam and the growth of tax revenue has begun to slow. This pretty much guarantees that the revenue will prove too low to face the challenges ahead.

I think a majority of the American people are ready to listen to an argument for progressivism. The only question I have is whether Democrats have the guts to make that argument, and if elected, will deliver a genuinely progressive government instead of a grab bag of Clintonian mini-ideas. And because of Republican mismangement we’re likely to be heading into some lean years, no matter how competent the government, and you know the rightie noise machine will blame Democrats for the mess movement conservatism made. They won’t go away anytime soon.

Meanwhile, I look forward to the next GOP debate. I hear the candidates will wear gorilla suits and burn Hillary in effigy. Could be better than Animal Planet.

Update: Hillary bites the heads off puppies?

Update 2: See also Steve Benen at The Carpetbagger.