Thursday, January 31, 2008

The GOP: From Big Tent to Three-Ring Circus

Florida is where circus people from all over the country go to spend the winter. And, watching the primary results from that state come in tonight, I'm struck that it also seems to be the place where the GOP's famous Big Tent has finally turned into a three-ring circus in its own right.

It's an apt metaphor. The genius of the conservative emergence during the 1970s was in the way it reached out to three large, deeply discontented tribes, and brought them all together under Lee Atwater's "big tent" -- which quickly turned into a red-striped big top full of the most bizarre acts anyone had ever seen. In its 20-year heyday, the whole dazzling circus was a blur of non-stop noise and glitter bouncing and glinting across three rings, three different shows -- and three sets of supporters each contributing something essential to the success of the Greatest Show in Politics.

In Ring Number One, there were the economic conservatives. Mostly business owners, some from Wall Street, others from Main Street, they were all about low taxes, free markets, and liberating themselves from any kind of government oversight or regulation. Their daring bull-and-bear act brought in the money, the media, the connections, and the organizational skill.

In Ring Number Two, there were the social conservatives -- not just evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, but also conservative Catholics and Jews...and, oh, yes, how can we possibly forget the Mormons? This group -- let's call them the klown kollege -- brought the energy and passion, giving the whole thing the spirit of a holy crusade. They could make you laugh. They could make you cry. And when they opened the trunks of those tiny cars, they could turn out foot soldiers by the millions -- and voters by the tens of millions.

And in Ring Number Three were the security and defense conservatives -- the minions of the military-industrial complex. They were daredevils and acrobats, with big cannons and high-divers and brave flying men who worked without a rope. They brought a certain manly swagger, a virility that dazzled the other two groups and appealed to their deep need for dominance and control. And, through long experience in Washington, they knew more than anybody about how to defy gravity and make government do triple back flips on their command.

You've gotta hand it to the GOP for being able to keep these three acts playing the same big tent for 30 long years. It wasn't easy to keep them all together in the same close canvas quarters without hissy fights breaking out, fur and blood flying, tusks and whips and claws shredding new exits through which one or another could flee. Even worse: keeping this motley show on the road required that the party twist itself around into a truly preposterous assortment of logical and philosophical contortions. Just a short list of the headliners will give you some idea:

-- Get the government off our backs (the core demand of economic cons) -- except, of course, to micro-legislate every detail of life, death, birth, sex, love, and marriage (a non-negotiable for social cons).

-- Dismantle government and cut taxes to nothing (the economic cons again) versus "strong defense" (a code phrase for: we'll fund whatever the security/military conservatives can possibly dream up, plus some stuff they haven't even thought of yet).

-- Restore a culture of "personal responsibility" (social and smaller-business economic conservatives) versus corporate welfare and the elimination of every mechanism of oversight or accountability (which was was the whole reason the military and large-business cons were in the game in the first place).

That's a game everyone in the cheap seats can play, too (see you in the comments -- and don't forget the popcorn!). But, amid all the twisted logic, there were a few straight and sturdy poles that held the roof up -- things they all agreed on, and gave them the incentive to keep the act together.

For example: all three groups had their own reasons for wanting to expand the empire and establish American dominance around the world. The economic cons wanted globalization: bigger markets and cheap labor. The social cons wanted government backing for their holy mandate to spread the Good News to every corner of the earth. And the military cons wanted an empire that would justify their continued bloated existence, forever and ever, amen.

In all three, this shared desire for global conquest was accompanied by a fundamental contempt for those about to be conquered -- an assurance of superiority that expressed itself an extreme level of racism, sexism, and religious bigotry that they didn't always try quite hard enough to conceal.

They were also bound together by various degrees of distrust of democracy. Economic cons despised government constraints, regulations, and taxes. Leave us alone, they barked in their fast-talking carney come-on patter-- and we'll take care of everything government does, and do more of it, and do it better. Social cons recognized democracy as a competing ideology -- the latest incarnation of every devil they'd fought since the Enlightenment dawned. Military cons were, ironically, some of democracy's biggest cheerleaders -- well, except for all those lefty/Commie/peacenik/Islamofascist agitators calling their budgets into question and naively insisting that they still had civil liberties during wartime. The only thing to do with such traitors is to lock 'em up -- and fortunately, this group held the keys to the tiger cages out back behind the tent, and the power to disappear those they deemed insufficiently respectful of their prowess.

Mostly, they were bound together by an authoritarian streak wider than than the stretched-out butt of Karl Rove's favorite sharkskin suit -- a desperate sense of insecurity that drove their grasping hands to seek control over anything, everything, everyone, within reach, out of reach, until they ran the whole world. Only when every nation and market is under American control, every church is Christian, every street corner has a video camera, and every citizen is safely under the surveillance of a watchful authority checking their behavior, can they, and the rest of the country, be completely safe. Until then, those hands will keep grasping. Because, in the end, the cause that binds them together most strongly is the promise that someday, they'll pacify their tormented personal demons by finally, at long last, being In Total Control Of It All.

Over time, some weird alliances formed. The corporate and military-industrial cons played a lot of golf and joined each other's boards. The religious cons embraced the free market as the Bible's ordained economic order; and they also fell in love with the military and started buying up Warrior Jesus Action Figures. The military cons began to make it clear that getting right with God was at least as important as combat experience for anyone who hoped to be promoted. In a few quiet corners of the Big Tent, at least, things got pretty cozy.

Still, the tensions never went entirely away -- and you have to pity the poor Republican presidential candidates who aspired to be the ringleader in charge of this three-ring circus. You couldn't make it to the White House with just one or two of these acts under the whip; you had to get all three lined up and ready to perform at your command. Furthermore, that thin handful of shared beliefs that held the roof up -- imperialism, racism, antipathy to democracy, militarism, and authoritarianism -- was absolutely unacceptable to the vast majority of Americans; so you couldn't put any of that rigging out there where the voters might chance to see it.

So you learned to talk in code, and to distract and dazzle with fine lies and bright lights and shadow; and to master the fine art of "message discipline." The common ground a candidate could stand on was so very small: one tiny tip in one direction or another, and you'd risk saying something stupid that would alienate one of the other two groups. So you stuck to the short list of topics you could safely discuss in public -- low taxes, limited government, personal responsibility, and strong defense -- while tossing a few winks on the sly to the religionists and the racists. Talking about anything else in more detail was likely to start a brawl. Addressing any specific issues, unless you could draw a direct link to one of the few allowed talking points, was a quick way to find yourself on the curly end of the hook.

It was a hell of a juggling act, and a lot of smart candidates fell into obscurity because they simply couldn't keep the action going. A few of them simply refused to step out there and try. In fact, in the end, only Reagan and the two Bushes could pull it all together into a show the paying customers would pony up to see.

Which brings us to 2008. Looking at the last men standing, it's obvious that the GOP's Big Top has grown dangerously shabby -- and may be on the verge of falling into total disarray. The three remaining primary candidates have each won over exactly one of the three core constituencies, leaving the party with three separate one-ring circuses, each with its own ringleader. And each one of the three candidates is absolutely despised by one of the other groups; and not much liked by the other.

The economic cons have Mitt, whom the military cons don't really know, and the religions ones openly revile. The religious cons have Huck, whom the military has no reason to trust; and whose overt populism gives the economic cons a bad case of the vapors. The security cons have McCain, whom the economic cons mistrust deeply, and who won't even try to convince the religious cons that he's one of their own.

Somehow, between now and August, the Republicans are going to have to choose one candidate to stand in the center ring. The three-way split is so strong that it's quite possible that it will only end in a very contentious brokered convention. And the odds are good that, even then, whoever ends up with the job will have only half-hearted support at best from the other two factions. In fact, whoever wins, it seems possible that at least one of the remaining acts will strike the set and sit this tour out entirely.

They're already packing up. It's common knowledge among political strategists on both sides that the GOP is pulling back its energies to the local and state levels for this election, hoping to regroup and re-emerge in 2012. (Apparently, Howard Dean's 50-state strategy -- which has revolutionized Democratic organizing this year -- has left them under-organized at this level; part of their job will be to develop something that can compete with it.) But putting the act back together in four years may not be as easy as assembling national voter files, training up a new generation of candidates, and building a big new tent in the hopes that they will come. Agendas on all three sides are changing. New ideas and priorities are emerging. Bad blood is being spilled.

If the split between these three factions is left to widen -- and especially if it only ends in a viciously-fought brokered convention -- it could make it very hard for anyone to put it all back together as a single coherent traveling show for a very long time.

After all, the three-ring circus itself has fallen out of fashion -- blown back into history by a stylish, young, energetic new upstart called Cirque du Soleil, which reinvented the entire art form for the first time in over a century. And, in our fondest hopes, perhaps that's what we're hoping the Democrats will become: one big ring, filled with dozens of unexpected acts that explode with creativity, diversity, compassion, and imagination, constantly challenging and re-defining our ideas of what's humanly possible....and doing it all without a net, without a hitch, and without much in the way of a ringmaster at all.