Republicans may be struggling in the dunk tank since the last national elections, holding onto each other for warmth and flotation in the Senate and House and fractiously searching for a new overarching identity to avoid being the outlying party for the next several decades.
But, don't be fooled by the Perils of Pauline act. The GOP is keeping its cutting cultural edge over the Dems.
The latest piece of functional brilliance: let the conservative "entertainers" do the wet work, the dirty parts of the job, while the pols take the high road and hang onto their seats. First come the populist bombers, then the statesmen behind them sweeping up the debris and tut-tutting for the cameras. You can have it both ways.
Bottom feed around the talk shows over the weekend or in between the lines of the political news stories and you'd see very clearly this next phase in the culture wars: another shrewd Republican plan to get and keep people's attention, often contradictory public impulses.
Rush Limbaugh, the flame-throwing Jabba the Hutt you can't afford to ignore, calls both Barack Obama and Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor "racist." Newt Gingrich, making his own spotlight comeback as a Republican arsonist, says the same. The public is inflamed, titillated -- there may even be a fair amount of agreement in places around the country -- and gets mesmerized by the fire. Phase One, complete!
Then on the Sunday talkies, Republican senate leader Mitch McConnell, South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, Alabama's Jeff Sessions and Texan Kay Bailey Hutchison disown the "racist" claim, mildly scolding the performers appearing in the center ring of their own tent.
On Face The Nation Sunday, Mr. McConnell had to get pushed hard by host Bob Schieffer to actually say he doesn't agree with the language of the Limbaugh/Gingrich attack. "I've got better things to do than be the speech police," he said, attempting a dodge. Senator Sessions invoked the commentators' right to free speech, while dismissing the commenting. Only Lindsey Graham let the real plan slip: "They've got an audience to entertain," he said on Fox News Sunday of Limbaugh/Gingrich. "I'm a United States senator."
In politics, that's often a distinction without a difference. But, he made the point. The GOP gets the flash of a charged-up base and the functionality of senatorial moderation. Aside from good ratings, this just might also be the way to avoid directly pissing off the growing Latino vote, a good chunk of it often conservative on a lot of issues.
Years ago in the Philippines, there was a Muslim warlord who heroically rescued (negotiated for ransom money) several nuns kidnapped by Islamic secessionists. I visited the convent with him and the sisters were in heaven about what he'd done for them. A day's walk into the jungle, where this guy's private army hid out, he introduced me to two of its members: the kids who'd kidnapped the nuns.
Like the Republican approach, there's the whole thing, nicely bookended.
So what do the Democrats do in response? They go "left-wing in theory, right-wing in practice," as David Zirin puts in in The Nation. Zirin, a sports writer, looked at Judge Sotomayor's court votes on professional sports issues and contends that while she made "strong statements for union rights," she also "faithfully serv(ed) the interests of money and power... no wonder she clicked so smoothly with the current administration."
Her patron, Mr. Obama, has lately been accused of the same -- on same-sex marriage, don't ask/tell, Afghanistan, taxes, detainees, and a rainbow of other issues. Even San Francisco's Democratic hopeful governor and boy mayor, Gavin Newsom, has talked left but moved right (advocating non-governmental solutions to solve government's drastic cutting of social programs, accepting big campaign bucks from an anti-rent-control advocate, successfully selling his multi-million dollar home in a down market and otherwise behaving kind of like a wealthy Republican.
If this strategy worked, we'd have a fair contest.
But the Dems don't seem to understand that you need different people to speak different lines; the same pol can't play two parts at the same time. Their act is also missing a key element: the entertainment factor. Jon Stewart is working hard, but with Al Franken in electoral limbo, who's the rampaging stage act for the Democrats?
Michael Moore? Well, he was right about GM. But nothing kills humorous entertainment like moral certitude.