Romantic that I am during this week devoted to love -- set between the birthday celebrations of our two greatest statesmen -- I was hoping for a thaw in the chilly conjugal relations between our two political parties. No such luck. Its two defining events: the State of the Union speech and response, and the Republican Senate filibuster of the President’s cabinet nominee, himself a former Republican Senator, continue a flow of events that resembles nothing so much as the former majority party’s fortunes, circling the drain.
The President’s speech was mostly a To-Do list of nice-things-to-have-that-won’t-happen, and to my ear was meaningful mostly in two senses: first, the sensible notion that deficit reduction is an important goal, but not the only goal; if we err too much on the side of austerity, the anemic domestic recovery will founder. Exhibit A: Europe, whose over-emphasis on cuts has crippled its economies and threatens to drag the US down with it. And second, his covertly political plea that gun control proposals get put to a vote: thereby exposing the gaping chasm between public sentiment and private pledges made to the NRA -- mostly, but not all, by his Opposition. I think his own ‘sights are set’ on 2014, and peeling-off 25-or-more House seats to restore a Democratic majority for his valedictory two-years.
Perhaps the more anticipated event was the GOP response, delivered by putative Party savior-of-the-moment Marco Rubio. In keeping with its post-election denial orthodoxy -- that there is nothing wrong with the Grand Old Party that some better semantics and hipper messengers can’t fix -- Senator Rubio was anointed as that New Voice. After all, he’s young, handsome, Hispanic and, as a strategist gushed on one of the Sunday morning pundit parleys: “He knows who Tupac was.”
Much like previous Chosen Ones Bobby Jindal, whose performance evoked Mr. Rogers, and Mitch Daniels who was generally indistinguishable from the furniture, this performance was an undoing. It is axiomatic that mannerisms matter more than words (does anyone recall JFK’s debate content or his coolness, in contrast to Mr. Nixon’s sweaty brow?), and from Mr. Rubio’s introductory forced and crooked smile through his odd gestures to his cotton-mouthed spittle, they were disastrous.
Not that the content was much better. There was no bold new policy vision worthy of a savior – just a tired harangue complaining about an Obama caricature, against a backdrop of admissions that he and his family had benefited from the kind of assistance that his Party eschews. It might have played to the Base that routinely sees those StrawBama portrayals, but the actual Prez had just been on TV – looking very Presidential in manner and speech. This address could only be successful if it served as Outreach to potential new GOP voters. As such, it had to be a dismal flop. Somewhere, Hillary is salivating at the prospect of debating Mr. Not-Ready-for-Prime-Time. Next!
Meanwhile, against a backdrop of public opinion that is trending Obama’s way and against Congressional recalcitrance, the GOP minority in the Senate has opted to contribute to those impressions in its deliberations over Mr. Obama’s nominee to head the Pentagon. Senator Hagel is a Nebraska Republican, a decorated former enlisted soldier, chosen for his Defense experience and anticipated fiscal competence in managing the coming challenges of developing a smaller, leaner, higher-tech military.
His nomination has been sidetracked by his former GOP colleagues, who first used his hearings to settle old grudges. Questions focused on The Surge and other historical references having little to do with skills or inclinations as CEO to lead a bloated, stove-piped $Half-trillion enterprise. Then, they decided to filibuster the appointment, chasing fanciful financial snarks and unrelated information on a political dead horse named Benghazi.
The logic of those sour political follies is lost on the public. A cabinet appointment is not a Supreme Court nomination – it’s a person who works for the President in a different branch of the government for a defined time and purpose. As such, the Senate oversight is important, but a routine order of business. This kind of spiteful, ultimately pointless exercise is why folks hate the Congress – and the chickens of these obstructions are finally coming to roost.
The GOP is admittedly in a tough spot. Faced with a massive rebuilding challenge (hell – it’s really an opportunity: let us not forget that, despite their internal difficulties, their guy got 47% of the vote!), they have chosen to ignore it in favor of message tinkering. The trouble is, they’ve already played that card, having benefited mightily from the linguistic wizardry of dark prince Frank Luntz. He’s immensely talented, but cannot convert a stagnant thinking into fine electoral wine.
And they’re fiddling, as above, at least in DC. It IS clear that a ‘savior’ is needed, at least in the form of Moderate leadership. That leadership is probably not going to come from anyone in doctrinaire DC – the statehouses are where I would look for someone around whom the Party could rally. Chris Christie would be hard-to-miss as an obvious first choice – are there others?