Side show takes main stage
Posted on Thursday, March 5, 2009
If the economic situation weren't so scary, it'd be amusing watching so many Republicans go crazier than a peach orchard boar, as country folks say.
To the connoisseur of political folly, last week's Conservative Political Action Committee in Washington offered a rich spectacle. Except it wasn't the usual sideshow barkers who provided the most bizarre entertainment; it was the headline speakers, notably Rush Limbaugh and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Between them, they made Louisiana's Gov. Bobby Jindal sound statesmanlike.
Jindal, after all, was merely pitching sweet feed to the cattle. But was it wise to argue that government doesn't work by citing the Bush administration's feckless response to Hurricane Katrina? To mock as wasteful the U.S. Geological Survey's monitoring of volcanoes? The same agency funds river gauges and tidal monitors, of interest to the Bayou State. Heck, why not throw in the do-nothing National Weather Service? Why watch the weather if you can't change it?
Just once I'd like to see one of these Confederate Republicans acknowledge how much more their states receive from the Treasury than they pay in taxes. (For Louisiana, it's $1.45 for every dollar paid; for Mississippi, $1.77, etc.) But then what's a little hypocrisy among free lunch conservatives? Jindal also mocked an (imaginary) $8 billion earmark for a high-speed railway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Then he turned right around and solicited funding for a Baton Rouge-New Orleans line.
Back before free-lunch hypocrisy became gospel, Louisiana had a social structure like Guatemala's-low taxes on the wealthy, a beaten-down middle class and sprawling poverty. Economically, GOP doctrine consists of ignoring the obvious. Show me a low-tax, "pro-business" paradise like the Deep South before World War II, and I'll show you poverty, disease, illiteracy and stagnant opportunity.
Alternatively, try finding a wealthy country anywhere on earth with the economic policies the Jindals, Limbaughs and Huckabees recommend. They simply don't exist. Hence, the current nearhysteria on the right. We haven't seen its like since the 1960s, when many white Southerners panicked over the prospect of racial integration, the John Birch Society flourished, and billboards depicting "Martin Luther King at a Communist training school" lined rural highways.
Historian Richard Hofstadter described it in a seminal 1964 essay: "The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms-he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millenialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days."
Which brings us back to Limbaugh and Huckabee. Sweating like a draft horse, and appearing to have gained the hundredplus pounds that Huckabee famously lost, Limbaugh all but anointed himself titular head of the GOP. OK, so he's never held office or participated in open debate. Where an ordinary mind might be daunted by the spectacular economic wreckage left behind by George W. Bush, Limbaugh's is an other-worldly doctrine.
Conservatism cannot fail, it can only be failed; hence, its patron saint, Ronald Reagan, is remembered only for cutting income taxes during his first term. His subsequent tax increases-nearly doubling the Social Security tax, for example-are never mentioned. This, Bush refused to do, resulting in the near-doubling of the national debt that Republicans have suddenly rediscovered with a Democrat in the White House.
As at the CPAC event, Limbaugh rarely mentions President Obama without talking about how liberals are "gnashing their teeth when I say I want Obama to fail. Because I have violated political correctness. . . . You can't wish the first black president would fail. . . . The dirty little secret is that every Republican in this country wants Obama to fail, but none of them have the guts to say so. I am willing to say it. We want him to fail because we want to preserve our country as we found it. We do not want to see a successful attack on capitalism."
He's so brave, Limbaugh, hiding behind a microphone with a mute button thrashing straw men he invented. Exactly who said Obama can't be criticized because he's black? Nobody. What I hear Democrats like White House chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel saying is how glad they are to see Limbaugh taking center stage.
Attack on capitalism? Most Americans understand that should Obama's efforts to save the banking system and kickstart the economy fail, we're in a world of hurt. Not Huckabee, however, a pragmatic moderate as Arkansas' governor, but a fire-andbrimstone shouter at CPAC. He claims that Obama's creating a new "Union of American Socialist Republics," adding that "Lenin and Stalin would love this stuff."
Lenin? Stalin? Why not Hitler, too?
Evidently, P.T. Barnum never actually said, "There's a sucker born every minute." He'd nevertheless have recognized a carnival act when he saw one.
· -–––––·–––––-Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and recipient of the National Magazine Award.