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HOW THE GOP WENT MAD! Krugman’s column was essential, as always–except for that one small remark: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, MAY 26, 2009

Blue Tuesday: This morning, we got a funny feeling. We felt that some of our favorite scribes may perhaps have “phoned it in” over the three-day weekend.

Example: In the Washington Post, Richard Cohen says he’s bedeviled by Elizabeth Edwards. And by another woman, of recent tabloid fame:

COHEN (5/26/09): I don't want Elizabeth Edwards in my life. Yet I cannot avoid her. She shadows me. Her cherubic visage is on every passing television screen. I have been spending time of late in hospitals visiting a loved one. Elizabeth Edwards is on in every room I pass...

There’s more about Edwards to snore about—and matters only get worse from there. “It is the same with Nadya Suleman, the woman who gave birth to eight babies and already had other babies and now has, for all I know, 23 children and no way of supporting them,” the tormented columnist writes.

Just a guess. Cohen had nothing to say this weekend—and a contractual obligation to say it.

But then, we’d already had a similar reaction to Gene Robinson’s piece, a Goofus-and-Gallant easy-reader comparing Obama to Cheney. Columnists would provide a real service if they further defined the (many, massive) errors of Cheney’s past service. In our view, though, Robinson pretty much has it on cruise control. As an aside, we’re always a bit annoyed by this particular construct:

ROBINSON (5/26/09): In Obama World, objective fact matters. The failure to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is significant. The absence of any link between Iraq and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks is relevant...

It’s a pet peeve with us. Many bigwigs believed we would find WMD; this would seem to include Al Gore, based on the speech he gave warning against war with Iraq. The question wasn’t simply whether such weapons might exist; the question was why we would go to war over such a matter. Libs and Dems have never refined that point. It bugs us every time.

But then, so does the sort of claim which follows, from Bob Herbert’s more dutiful column. “America has become self-destructively shortsighted in recent decades,” the scribe has already said:

HERBERT (5/26/09): It’s about whether we’re serious about remaining a great nation. We don’t act like it. Here’s a staggering statistic: According to the Education Trust, the U.S. is the only industrialized country in which young people are less likely than their parents to graduate from high school.

We can’t put our people to work. We can’t educate the young. We can’t keep the infrastructure in good repair. It’s hard to believe that this nation could be so dysfunctional at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. It’s tragic.

“According to the Education Trust.” On occasion, those can be dangerous words. (As we like to say about the high-minded org: “Education Trust—but verify.”) Are young Americans really less likely to graduate than their parents? No idea. (For the cite, click here, then click to page 3.) But according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, black kids are doing massively better, in reading and math, than they were several decade ago. We’d love to see detailed critique of those data. But Herbert churns some standard gloom-and-doom here. There’s a hint here of “phoning it in.”

One bright spot in this morning’s Post: Last Thursday, David Broder typed some absurdly tired old pap about Democrats being “isolated from the military.” Surprise! A highly cogent letter today addresses this self-typing blather.

Of course, Cohen and Broder have been phoning it in for a very long time at the Post. To all appearances, the paper plans to sink beneath the waves with such worn-out script-readers in place.

HOW THE GOP WENT MAD: As usual, Paul Krugman’s Friday column was flat-out essential reading. (It concerned the drift of health care legislation, a topic you can’t learn about on progressive TV shows.) But then, yesterday’s column was essential too. It concerned some basic aspects of our reeling political culture.

Of course, Krugman’s column is almost always essential. In part for that reason, we want to critique an off-hand remark he included in yesterday’s piece. Yes, it’s just a throw-away comment—it forms no real part of his analysis. But we think it’s worth being clear on why this comment seems wrong:

KRUGMAN (5/25/09): To be blunt: recent events suggest that the Republican Party has been driven mad by lack of power. The few remaining moderates have been defeated, have fled, or are being driven out. What’s left is a party whose national committee has just passed a resolution solemnly declaring that Democrats are “dedicated to restructuring American society along socialist ideals,” and released a video comparing Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to Pussy Galore.

And that party still has 40 senators.

We must have been at too many cook-outs! Did the RNC really release a video making that comparison, we wondered. We googled it up, and clicked this link.

Astoundingly, the RNC did.

Truly, that’s astonishing conduct. (Is Olbermann writing for the RNC now?) But was the GOP driven mad this year, or in recent years? And was the GOP driven mad by a lack of power?

In fact, the GOP and its agents have been behaving this way for a very long time. We’d suggest they were driven mad by an excess of power—by the grinding power the party held through most of the past forty years.

Here at THE HOWLER, we’ve been watching as our political narratives have turned in the past six months. As we’ve watched, we’ve pondered the way the GOP controlled such political narratives from 1968 on.

From 1968 through 2008, the GOP largely controlled the narratives shaping our discourse. Democrats held the White House for twelve of those forty years. But even when Bill Clinton began a two-term reign, he was assailed by wave after wave of gong-show public attacks. He and his wife were serial murderers; he himself was a major drug dealer. Vince Foster’s suicide was “investigated” again and again. And again! And once more after that!

That was ugly public conduct. It was also blatantly nuts.

Just how crazy was this era? Let’s pose a question to younger readers: Did you know that the Clintons used condoms and crack pipes for ornaments on the White House Christmas tree? After former FBI agent Gary Aldrich made that and other preposterous claims in a crackpot, best-selling book, Tim Russert devoted the bulk of a worried hour to The New Yorker’s outrageous attempt to fact-check Aldrich’s claims. Today, Russert’s scolding cross-examination of Hedrik Hertzberg and Jane Myers reads like a fever-dream from a deeply lunatic era. Here are five consecutive questions he posed to the people who’d dared to fact-check a nut, at a time when cans of salted nuts were visibly running the discourse.

RUSSERT (5/27/97): Have you ever made a mistake, Jane?

RUSSERT: Have you ever been sued in your professional career?

RUSSERT: Do you have a philosophical or ideological bias to your reporting?

RUSSERT: Will you tape-record conversations in the future?

RUSSERT: Rick Hertzberg, The New Yorker magazine has had some difficulties in the past, being challenged and sued. On this story you will state again, emphatically, you stand by—other than the fact that you just mentioned, involving the date of Regnery's brother, the date of his death—every other quote in this story, you stand by?

Have you ever made a mistake! Yes, he actually said it! (Sorry—no transcript is available on-line.) In the previous segment, Russert had been much more deferential toward Aldrich and his misused publisher, the high-minded well-meaning Al Regnery.

That fall, we started planning this web site. (It took some time!) But let’s be honest: Few career players showed signs of giving a fig about this spreading lunacy.

Did Clinton or Clinton help kill Vince Foster? This was ugly public lunacy, widely promoted and/or tolerated. And no, this spreading lunacy wouldn’t be restricted to attacks on Bill Clinton. In February 1999, Clinton escaped removal from office in his senate impeachment trial. Three weeks later, Al Gore began his White House campaign—and the lunacy was instantly redirected at him. Al Gore said he invented the Internet! Well actually, no, he didn’t say that—not if you want to be halfway sane, or even modestly fair. But that iconic claim was instantly ginned from Gore’s first interview as a candidate! The RNC, and the Washington press corps, had been lying in the weeds. Seamlessly, they redirected their madness from Clinton on over to him.

This lunacy didn’t stem from a lack of power. It grew when Republicans had too much power. And let’s make sure we understand where that excess came from:

In large part, it came from the willingness of the mainstream press to tolerate or repeat any GOP claim, no matter how patently crazy. In large part, it came from the refusal of liberals and Dems to resist this misuse of power.

Gene Lyons resisted in 1995 with Fools for Scandal; few career players followed suit. This created an unfortunate world—a world in which Republicans and their agents could make any claim, no matter how blatantly crazy.

This wasn’t an absence of power. This bordered on absolute power.

Does absolute power corrupt absolutely? Plainly, it turns brains to mush. Today, the RNC is still churning idiot claims—even though the press corps’ frameworks have largely moved on. (This change in press outlook is largely due to Bush’s disasters; to Hillary Clinton’s defeat; and to Obama’s winning ways in his ascension to power.)

Simple story: If politicians are allowed to say any damn thing, they quite frequently will. Simple example: In late 1999 and early 2000, why did Bill Bradley start saying that Al Gore introduced the nation to Willie Horton? Presumably, because he knew he could. Even though the claim was absurdly untrue. Even though he himself had said the opposite, at some length, in a book, just a few years before.

Presumably, he knew it would be allowed—would even be widely recited! So he started to say it.

Republicans got crazy for the same reason: Because it was allowed. It was permitted by a wide swath of liberal players who are now in the public square, crying and shedding crocodile tears about how much they hate the world Bush/Cheney brought us. Alas! When they could have resisted, they hid in the woods. Or they sat in the liberal chair on The McLaughlin Group repeating the RNC’s dumbest slanders, three weeks before the nation voted in 2000.

That, of course, was Lawrence O’Donnell. Today, he’s a Hollywood millionaire. We adore the insights and the high conscience he brings to our public debates.

The GOP didn’t get crazy this year. They were publicly crazy a long time ago, enabled in their public lunacy by a wide range of major players. Liberals and Democrats hid in the woods, waiting until the tide turned.

Eventually, Bush destroyed the known world—and narratives have started to turn. But GOP’s lunacy hasn’t. For many, it’s all they know.
That tape about Pelosi is astounding. But they played similar, gender-trashing games with Hillary Clinton for many years. Our heroes were camping in the woods—or were vouching for Chris Matthews’ brilliance.

How did the GOP go mad? They went mad in a crackpot era, the 1990s. We seem inclined to forget that era today. In that era, their madness was allowed.

Inclined to forget: We seem inclined to forget the madness of the 1990s. Example: Did you see Chris Matthews on Charlie Rose last night, praising Bill Clinton’s vast wonderful unsurpassed brilliance?

Good God. No one savaged Clinton longer or harder; no one went after Candidate Gore in an uglier, more dishonest way. But Chris has forgotten about those days. To judge from the questions he didn’t ask, his host has forgotten them too.