I plowed through Double Down, which I recommend if you are one of the relative few who belong both to the set of people who like politics and the set of people who are not put off by tittle-tattle and long-winded descriptions of a win-at-any-cost mentality. In additional to the tittle-tattle, however, the story of what it takes to win — or what the people who run campaigns believe it takes to win — emerges. This story does not depict a plague that afflicts both houses equally. The reader emerges dripping from the book’s muck wondering what on earth will happen to the GOP.
People have often accused the Republicans of voting themselves into doom by failing to appeal to young people or Hispanics. This is true. But what has been less addressed is how they lost the “basically sane” vote.
With a rare exception here and there, I would rather vote for a well-trained macaque than just about any Republican. Let us, however, rewind 10-15 years. I coulda been a Republican. Way back in the early aughts, I was concerned Democrats were scatty and impractical. Convinced by Kenneth Pollack/Thomas Friedman/The New Republic types, I was in favor of the war in Iraq (I know, I know…I’m not saying I was right, just saying where I was). I am also fairly moderate to conservative on some issues (and remain thus). I thought seriously about being a Republican.
In the end, I never changed my party registration, not even to “independent.” And now the very idea that “I thought seriously about becoming a Republican” seems absolutely incomprehensible, akin to “I thought seriously about becoming a JFK assassination conspiracy theorist.”
Reading Double Down crystallized a belief I had been slowly, amorphously forming. Congressional Democrats have been under fire for being less unified than Congressional Republicans and thus less effective. They are seen as impotent, whereas Republicans wield every ounce of power they have. But the national Democratic party has trumped the GOP in a far more important way. The Democrats have shed their lunatic fringe to a startlingly effective degree. Their most extreme elements are shunted carefully away.
Both Obama and Romney come across in Double Down as “likable enough,” as Obama might say. The difference in how they must run their campaigns, however, is instructive.
Obama clearly has some goals he would like to achieve. Providing access to health coverage seems to be a heartfelt belief. He had long been in favor of gay marriage and asked his aides to find the soonest possible time for him to come out of that closet. It is, of course, cynical that he cloaked his views for so long. But he clearly wanted to speak his mind, even though he was not entirely sure where the chips would fall. There is no point in the book where Obama is forced to pretend to hold a position in which he clearly does not believe.
What is motivating Romney to run is murky. The generally-held image of Romney as a man who simply wants to win for the sake of winning is not disabused in the book. His actual views never emerge from the pages. He is clearly terrified of being a “flip-flopper.” He will say anything to ensure that he does not appear to be abandoning his core principles. However, the core principles he is supposedly not abandoning, such as his hard line on immigration, seem far from sincere.
Some of his aides urge him to have a “Sister Souljah” moment, i.e., a moment where he risks the ire of his party by repudiating its most extreme elements. He ultimately cannot bring himself to do so. (Contrast with Obama, whose brave gay marriage moment involved embracing his party’s line.) One gets a whiff from Mitt Romney that he is indeed not “severely conservative.” One feels that there is some issue, perhaps even gay marriage, on which he would have been perfectly willing to take a stand. But. The Republican primaries remain controlled by Tea Party types. One cannot win without catering to them. At least Romney believed this, and possibly he was right.
Obama in Double Down seems liberated to be more liberal. His moments of honesty are about admitting he is more in line with, not the lunatic fringe of his party, but certainly its left flank. This is striking. Interestingly, it communicates the utter political failure of the left lunatic fringe. Republican candidates must be careful not to risk the ire of Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, et al. Democratic candidates need do next to nothing to placate the editorial board of Mother Jones or the organizers of Occupy Wall Street.
It is always amusing to hear people on the right call Obama a socialist. I work in academia. I know socialists. They are friends of mine. Real socialists are not fans of either Obama or Obamacare. If you were involved in an Occupy Wall Street protest, chances are very good that you: despise Obama for rolling under to Larry Summers and giving the banks whatever they wanted, think he is a despot intent on gathering all your personal information, think he is a despot who covers up the tracks of his illegal civilian-killing drone wars, think he knuckled under to the right repeatedly and lost a chance for single-payer health care and serious environmental regulation. Real socialists do not like Obama.
But who cares? No one. This has not stopped Obama. These folks seem to have no political power whatsoever. No one need cater to them even in primary elections, much less general elections. The Democrats have managed to capture enough of the middle that they don’t need the lunatic left. That is a seriously impressive feat.
John Boehner can’t do much without the say-so of the Tea Party. Democrats are beholden to no one. At one point in Double Down, Jon Huntsman (who comes off as an ineffectual, insincere fame-seeker) considers running as a third party candidate. He wishes to moderate between the excesses of left and right. This is pointless. There are no excesses of the left anymore that have political consequences. The Democrats are the center.
This is, and will continue to be, a serious electoral advantage. Except for the possibility of Chris Christie. Christie is unafraid of Sister Souljah moments, to say the least, and that of course makes him far more likable to the middle. He is the man who hugged Obama, after all. Indeed, I find myself liking him quite a bit at moments like this. Some people thought the revelations in the book about Chris Christie are damaging. They are so vague, however, that they are not really damaging. Further, it is clearly to Christie’s advantage that anything damaging is revealed now, and not in primary season. Contrary to reports that leaking the information represents the anger of the Romney people toward Christie, I think it’s entirely in Christie’s interest that any bad news emerge now.
In the Republican primary, if (a) Christie holds to his more moderate views, and (b) wins anyway, the Republican party may not vanish into a regional band of impractical gun-owning ideologues. If Christie tells the Iowa caucus-goers what he thinks they want to hear, the party verges on doom.