On January 20, the day before the South Carolina primary, the Washington Post published a long story about how political polarization in that state was reflected in—and sharpened by—South Carolinians’ choices of news providers. The story opened and closed with a Newt Gingrich supporter, a woman from Laurens, who described her worldview as “conservative, Tea Party, Christian.” The woman’s closing quote was revealing and, in a way, chilling. “I think we can all agree Obama’s driving us into the ground,” she said. “My honest opinion is that he hates our country and is trying to destroy us. Hopefully, I’m not too tunnel-visioned. But I guess I mostly see what I agree with.”

Watching the Republican Party these past few months has brought to mind the Alien movies of the late 1970s and ’80s. Like the shadowy, unnamed company behind the expeditions that are sent to kill the malevolent, shape-changing monster, the GOP establishment has long fancied that it could keep a powerful, complex, rapacious creature—the party’s far right—under control indefinitely and exploit it for the establishment’s purposes. Inevitably, however, the creature refuses to be contained; it breaks free and wreaks havoc on its captors—and on unsuspecting innocents as well.

The Gingrich campaign is the current incarnation of that creature. That South Carolina woman and others like her have rallied to Gingrich’s message and threatened to seize control of the party and carry it to what most rational observers predict would be a certain and catastrophic defeat in November at the hands of President Barack Obama.

Since 1968, when Richard Nixon took the opening created by the Democrats’ embrace of civil rights and pioneered the “Southern strategy,” the GOP has pursued an approach to winning presidential elections that relies on appeals to the grimmest, darkest instincts of certain segments of the American public, instincts of the kind that can lead an otherwise sensible-seeming person to the conviction that the president of the United States “hates our country and is trying to destroy us.”

Gingrich has managed to make himself avatar of the party’s far right by appealing to fears of national decline, by stoking resentment of supposed freeloaders (Obama is the “food-stamp president”) and the “elite news media,” and by tossing off simplistic solutions to complex problems with the self-confident insouciance of a college sophomore in a late-night dormitory bull session.

His two divorces and three marriages ought to have made Gingrich one of the weakest Republican presidential candidates, especially for those who consider themselves conservative and Christian. But he has adroitly used his conversion to Catholicism to inoculate himself against questioning on that score, in effect saying to his opponents: God has forgiven me, so why won’t you?

Gingrich has also been helped by the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case, allowing unlimited expenditures on a candidate’s behalf as long as they are done independently of the candidate’s campaign. So it is that the candidacy of the avowed champion of conservative, Christian values has been kept alive by cash infusions from a billionaire owner of gambling halls.

Mitt Romney still appears to be the odds-on favorite to take the Republican nomination, especially after his resounding victory in Florida. But what does it say of the party of Lincoln that he has had to wrestle the nomination from the grip of a man like Gingrich, many of whose supporters agree with that lady in South Carolina?

On the other hand, it was last August when Barack Obama did the impossible: He lost me. Not permanently, I hope. But enough so that I was unable for several months to watch him—in his September “jobs speech” to Congress, on the evening news—without feeling a twinge of something like disgust. Disgust that he let himself be treated like a chump by House Speaker John Boehner and his band of Tea Party zealots during the debt-ceiling fiasco.

I’m a sixty-five-year-old African American, old enough to have experienced personally the bad old days of legal segregation. So I was excited enough by the election of the nation’s first black president that I would have cut him a thousand miles of slack. But the last thing I expected was that he would ask me to watch him meekly accept humiliation by his political opponents—a substantial part of it racially motivated, I am convinced. And the second last thing I expected was that I would go into 2012 looking at the upcoming presidential election as a lesser-of-two-evils affair.

That description is a bit unfair both to Obama and to his likely Republican opponent. Neither Obama nor Romney is truly evil. But both are deeply disappointing and, oddly, in the same disturbing way.

After more than three years of Obama’s presidency, I am unsure what he really stands for, except on the one issue—abortion—where I stand 180 degrees opposite him. His laudable and successful advocacy of health-care reform suggested a genuine commitment to fundamental economic fairness and equality. But his cave-in on the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy in December 2010 called that commitment into question.

Obama’s comments during the 2008 campaign about President George W. Bush’s promiscuous use of presidential “signing statements” to aggrandize executive power at the expense of Congress (and the Constitution) suggested an appreciation of the importance of limits on, and separation of, powers. But his unilateral exercise of war-making power in the effort to oust Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi—and the breathtakingly audacious assertion that the bombing of targets in Libya by American warplanes and drones did not constitute “hostilities”—suggest that Obama is as deeply wedded to unrestrained presidential power as Bush was.

And while his opposition to torture and efforts to shut down the terrorist detention facility at Guantánamo Bay suggested a determination that America should be—and should be seen to be—punctilious in its observance of civil liberties and human rights, in many respects the Obama administration has been as repressive of civil liberties as its predecessor was.

That impression has only been reinforced by the administration’s recent decision to force certain religious institutions to cover contraceptives as part of their employee health-insurance packages, in violation of conscientiously felt, religion-based objections. Does the First Amendment now mean nothing?

A voter who cast a ballot for Obama in 2008 expecting to see him exert himself to foster greater economic equality must wonder what he will get if he votes for Obama this year. Will the president let himself be maneuvered into renewing all the Bush tax cuts yet again when they expire at the end of this year, or will he find the gumption to force his opponents to do the right thing—or show their hands as ideologically blinded protectors of wealth and privilege at the expense of ordinary Americans? Is his recent adoption of the themes and some of the rhetoric of the “Occupy” movement the real thing, or an election-year expedient?

Romney is at least as befuddling to a diligent voter as Obama is. Is he really prolife—or will he be on the other side (again) if he succeeds in winning the presidency? And on health care, why is it that a Romney-backed individual mandate was appropriate in Massachusetts but not for the nation? And how can he square his advocacy of conservative principles—which seem to have devolved in this era to one thing only: opposition to any increase in taxes—with the need (agreed on by virtually every economist of any stature) to stimulate the economy?

Until now, Romney has had the burden of trying to distinguish himself in a Republican presidential field that has seemed at times as if it were the cast of a political version of Survivor. He doesn’t have the nomination locked up yet, but now that the field has been substantially reduced, he ought to be able to begin defining himself better, both for Republican primary voters and the electorate at large. The sooner he begins the inevitable move toward the center, where general elections are won, the more intelligently voters will be able to assess whether he or Obama merits their confidence.

But the presidency is only half the political equation this year. As usual, the nation will be electing a third of the Senate and the full membership of the House of Representatives. And if the events in Washington last year demonstrate anything, it is that the composition of the two chambers on Capitol Hill matter every bit as much as who occupies the White House.

In 2010, the Tea Party wing of the GOP captured the House and used that leverage to change the debate in Washington. Despite the slow recovery from the deepest recession since the 1930s and the consensus of economists of every stripe that cutting government spending would impede recovery, not speed it, Republicans demanded cuts in government spending to move the nation toward a balanced budget. They did so even as they voted to continue the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, despite projections that those cuts would add nearly $1 trillion to the nation’s debt over the next ten years. They held hostage an increase in the debt ceiling—usually a routine matter—to force adoption of spending cuts. And they embarrassed both the president of the United States and their own leader, the speaker of the house, who was forced to abandon a deal with the president because he couldn’t win the support of his caucus.

It was enough to make a cynical observer on the left think perhaps the Tea Party Republicans hate our country and want to destroy it. Or maybe it was just Obama they hated and the country would be collateral damage in the war to defeat him. (“We had to destroy this country in order to save it”?)

Congress may no longer be capable of enforcing its prerogatives on possibly the weightiest action the government can undertake—making war—but the House Republicans showed that they could make a president tremble when it comes to collecting and spending dollars and cents. That they did it in perhaps the most pernicious and irresponsible way they could have seems not to have disturbed them in the least.

It does, however, appear to have disturbed voters. In a report issued in November, the Pew Research Center said it found substantial reductions in support for the Tea Party, both nationwide and in districts represented by Tea Party Republicans. In December, the center found Republicans in Congress taking more of the blame for what voters regarded as a “do-nothing Congress” last year and voter discontent with Congress at an all-time high, exceeding even the levels of 2010, when fifty-eight members of Congress lost re-election bids.

This may matter little, however, after states finish redrawing Congressional district maps to account for population changes recorded in the 2010 census. Republicans made big gains not just in Congress in the 2010 elections, but also in state legislatures and governorships. That means Republicans will dominate the remapping process in most states, and will draw congressional districts to favor candidates of their party.

Take that, surly electorate!

Published in the 2012-02-24 issue: 
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