Chicken-hawks, Clowns, Corporatia, and Curmudgeons... A National Big Tent Strategy for 2016

Paul Evans

The clowns present the national GOP with a dilemma: while too popular to ignore, they are too dangerous to be allowed to succeed.

For a generation of Americans the movie “Billy Madison” registers a particularly salient humorous tone.

Adam Sandler plays the role of a wealthy kid forced to confront his own wasted youth: he is compelled to complete his high school studies in an accelerated race against time. The plot is less powerful than a specific scene during his academic gauntlet.

After answering a question about the Industrial Revolution (and comparing America to a puppy), Madison is rebuked by the moderator. He is rebuked not merely for the answer itself, but for the more heinous crime of making the audience dumber as a result of hearing the answer.

It is a line I have used myself in the classroom many times since: contrary to popular conceptions there really are a few dumb questions – a few more – dumb answers.

That said, I referenced this scene from the movie because after the past month of listening to the arguments offered by the folks who are supposedly the “front-runners” for the 2016 Republican Nomination for President – I feel dumber as a result.

A recent gathering in Iowa may have actually set a new low in this regard… The comparisons between President Obama and Fidel Castro offered by Texas pastor Rafael Cruz might have been offensive if not uttered with such ham-handedness.

For all of us familiar with the fallacious and poorly crafted attacks upon President Obama (and America – at least the America that twice elected Obama to office) offered by the senior Cruz, it is now all too obvious why “Tail-gunner Ted” Cruz turned out the way he did.

Sadly, hate born from ignorance, self-delusion, and small-mindedness can be a family value. It is an awful thing for so few to hate so many for so long.

We should recognize that the few believe – truly so – they are right (regardless of fact, logic, or reason). Iowa was full of “big tent” rhetoric. The assembled men and women earnestly accept as a matter of faith the relative popularity of their perspectives among “real” Americans.

Like it or not, we must accept their claim: the national GOP is a "big tent." And it has been for quite some time.

The umbrella of “Bush-Cheney-Romney Republicanism” extends over a undeniable diversity of culture, region and life experiences: the country clubs in Texas and Wyoming really are quite different than the yacht clubs in New England.

We all know the national GOP has long welcomed chicken-hawks, corporatia, and more than a few curmudgeons. For clarity sake, I offer the following working definitions:

  1. Chicken-hawk: a term used to describe outspoken advocates for the use of military force in support of political objectives; men and/or women that are willing to risk the lives of American troops so long as that risk never includes themselves (these are people too busy to serve in uniform when they were young enough to serve);

  2. Corporatia: a term used to describe outspoken advocates of (or assimilated members of) corporate empowerment, rights, and welfare; men and/or women that are willing to use any means necessary to defend the interests of the vested interests; and

  3. Curmudgeons: a term used to describe outspoken advocates for a return to the way America never was; men and/or women that are willing to use myth, ritual, and symbol in support policies that fit a particular worldview (often regardless of the efficacy of such advocacy)

This rag-tag amalgamation provided the GOP with a powerful blend of certainty often undeterred by circumstance, facts, or reality. It was a winning combination because neither rationality nor responsibility mattered.

People were encouraged to feel more, think less, and leaders were rewarded absent demonstrable achievement. George W. Bush openly (and often) stated that he made decisions from his “gut” and reveled in the role of “decider-in-chief.”

His Vice, Cheney, was always more than willing to free Americans from the burdens of knowing right from wrong: like his mentor "Tricky Dick" - he demonstrated that if the Executive Branch orders something to be done it cannot be illegal (at least the kind of illegal that sends someone to prison).

And his would-be successors McCain and Romney valued the right of wealth and matters of privacy (at least when it came to privacy about their wealth).

For a long time, the national GOP was a coherent, focused, and viable organization for achieving national, state, and local electoral victories.

Unfortunately for the GOP a new faction showed up in 2010 to answer the call of obstructionism trumpeted by McConnell and his allies: the Tea Party raised an army and sent their troops to besiege the Capital City - to save it (from itself).

Now seasoned and prepared to take the revolution to the next level, a new generation of leaders is warming up for the 2016 race.

Enter the clowns.

Cruz, Palin, Paul, Rubio and the rest are too young to have dodged the draft (like their mentors), too anti-establishment to be trusted by the corporatia, and too shiny and sexy to be favored by the aging curmudgeons (who aren’t yet ready to depart the national stage).

It is telling that few of the heavyweights from previous GOP Nomination fights are publicly celebrating the Tea Party or its demonstrable power in Congress.

The clowns present the national GOP with a dilemma: while too popular to ignore, they are too dangerous to be allowed to succeed.

Not content with merely threatening brinksmanship on budget negotiations and debt reductions, these people believe they will benefit from driving the ship to ground.

At the circus, clowns provide a distraction from the frenzy of activities inside the rings: these are folks that are willing to go to extraordinary, often humiliating lengths to earn the applause of an entertained audience for its own sake.

There is a fine line between satire and slapstick: satire requires intelligence, slapstick requires little more than a willing audience for laughing at the unfortunate circumstances of another.

It wasn’t always this way; less than a generation ago it was very different.

Once upon a time, Oregon was the land of Republicans like Atiyeh, Hatfield, McCall, Paulus, Schoon, and Smith (Bob).

Say what you might about the policies of all or any of these Republicans. These people were dedicated public servants that led through the force of their ideas – they were servants of the public trust.

An honest survey of Oregon Politics in 2013 would account for at least a few remaining moderates. These moderates are like salmon: hard to count, harder still to find - at least in elected office.

The "purification primaries" of the 1990s and 2000s replaced pragmatism with partisanship as the principle value. It was a tragedy for our state; it was an even larger tragedy for our nation. The intraparty fratricide has left our nation weakened, our future less certain.

Would anyone claim Cruz, Palin, Paul, or Rubio are dedicated stewards of our national interests? Could anyone make that claim with a straight face?

Even the 2008 GOP Nominee is reported to be more favorable to Hillary Clinton as President then Cruz, Paul, or Rubio – and maybe Palin – the former Alaska Governor he picked for VP…

Something somewhere is weird in our universe when Bob Dole advises the Republicans in Congress to put a “Closed for Repairs” sign on the doors of Congress.

Outside the Beltway there are many hard working Republican leaders. There may even be a few left in D.C. But the GOP is hostage to a minority of a minority of its membership; it is constrained by its own successes.

It is critical that partisans contest elections vigorously. It is equally critical, if not more so, that we come together for the nation’s interests after the battle.

We must honor the view of the minority without sacrificing the rights of governance for the majority: it is critical that we accept majority rule within the US Congress again.

There is a role within a vibrant democratic Republic for at least two healthy factions. We are stronger when we are compelled to defend our notions of governance through a fair, public, and reasonable process of deliberation and decision-making.

Sadly, we are witness to a national GOP that has internal drivers for pushing itself over the cliff. It isn’t that the real leaders within the party are unable to see the catastrophe unfolding – it is that they have built a network of forces that cannot help but conspire to push well past the limits of rationality.

There is an enduring but false myth in American Politics: the saying that Democrats lead with their hearts and Republicans lead with their heads is demonstrably untrue.

Ironically, the exact opposite is much closer to truth.

The modern Republican Party is largely comprised of believers: believers with spillover between the sacred and secular – believers who favor certainty and strength over demonstrable accuracy or consistency.

The modern Democratic Party is largely comprised of thinkers: people who are often guilty of fragmentation in pursuit of perfection (at the expense of the good enough) – thinkers who favor process and rationality over emotionalism or pyrrhic crusades.

This August (for a few weeks more) we have the opportunity to visit with our Congressional Delegation during the recess.

There will be forums, sidewalk office hours, and town hall meetings across the State of Oregon. These events are part show and substance, but each provides an opportunity for citizens to advance ideas directly to our elected ambassadors to D.C.

It is time for all of us – whatever our party or preference – to speak with a singular voice and demand a functional Congress. It is time for all of us to accept the values and virtues of a competitive political system – even as we demand a functional political system.

Although we have a lot of time before the nation must choose our next President we must be wary of allowing the clowns too much opportunity to shape the landscape of that contest.

We must demand a competitive race between men and women of vision – people with the experience, skills, and talent to bring a nation closer together – leaders with an ability to govern in a manner that fosters national consensus instead of protracted disrespect and greater disunion.

With respect to whoever said “send in the clowns,” it is time we escort them back to their car and wave goodbye.

America cannot realize its promise unless we find a way to renew our sense of citizenship, community, and cooperation.

America cannot reach for the stars as long as Cruz, Palin, Paul, and Rubio are viewed as anything more than jesters for the court.

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