From time to time, I have pondered the fortunes of the Republican Party, buried deeper than King Tut seven years ago by George W. Bush and now poised to reclaim the only branch of government it does not control lock, stock and barrel two Novembers from now, with only Hillary Clinton in the way.
You remember Hillary, the shoo-in candidate who performed so badly that a funny-eared guy with a name that rhymes with the world’s most hated terrorist walked off with the Democratic nomination and cruised into the White House.
Hillary and the Republicans do have this in common: they both performed so badly in 2008 that it seemed not even divine intervention could resurrect them. And the icing on the cake is that the man who could well give the Republicans their trifecta goes by the name of Bush. And this is a guy even his mother didn’t want to see run. (Of course, Barbara must be so bored with the White House by now.)
Let’s not forget, though, to give the Democratic Party its due: no franchise has fallen from first to worst faster — not even the Phillies, who, like the Democrats, think they can still win by fielding their 2008 lineup.
After losing the Senate to the Republicans in a rout last November, senior Democrats are now doing the kind of soul-searching that the GOP did after putting up a war hero in 2008 and losing to a skinny kid from Hawaii.
What they’ve come up with so far is something like this: Democrats are after all deeply principled statesmen who believe in fairness, equality and giving a hand up now and then to the deserving poor. They just aren’t getting their message across; in other words, they’ve blown the opportunity to own Washington for the next 20 years for lack of a marketing plan.
They also agree that they made a big tactical mistake in running away from their notional leader, Barack Obama, instead of running against the other party. Obama thinks so, too, which is why he was so delighted — the politer words used in the press were “liberated” and “energized” — by the Democrats’ defeat.
Liberated from his own party? Well, yes, because never actually belonged to it, and being, now, the last Democrat standing, he has at last succeeded in defining the party as himself.
And who and what may that be?
I have tried, with Maureen Dowd, to figure Barack Hussein Obama out these past seven years. I have seen him as the “Manchurian Candidate,” cobbled together by the Trilateral Commission as a plausible cipher to run the agenda of the Permanent Ruling Class through the back door when the Republican brand became temporarily tarnished.
I don’t think that was a bad stab at the truth, because the Obama agenda — pushing a healthcare bill devised by the Heritage Foundation as reform; doubling down on the surveillance state and a failed war in Afghanistan; giving the Fortune 500 a trade bill to die for in the Trans-Pacific Partnership; slow-walking the “recovery” from the financial blowout of 2008 until wages could be permanently slashed and the last unions driven out of business; etc., etc. — was, transparently, the Koch Brothers’ dream of America.
Still, the “Manchurian Candidate” doesn’t quite do Obama justice. In the famous movie, the Laurence Harvey character, Raymond Shaw, is hypnotized whenever his mother flashes a certain card sequence at him and that sounds more like George W.
Besides, the idea that America has actually been ruled by Barbara Bush for the past quarter century is too creepy even for a horror movie. But the cinema analogy seemed to me the right track, and I think I’ve finally got it nailed down.
Barack Obama is the Tin Man.
Yes, that Tin Man, the one from “The Wizard of Oz,” who is perpetually in quest of the one thing he lacks, the one thing his designers forgot to put into him: a heart. In the book, and more famously the classic 1939 movie, the Tin Man tags along after Dorothy Gale, the girl from Kansas who gets the worst of a tornado but never loses her pluck.
He is kind of awkward, and with his moving metal parts looking in need of a lube job, he is probably a lousy foul shooter too. Still, lacking a heart is no joke. Try doing without it sometime.
Like Barack Obama, the Tin Man is not really a leader, because how, after all, can one lead without any sense of direction? That’s precisely what a heart does: it tells you where to go and what to do. So the Tin Man tags along after Dorothy, a perky kid but kind of lost herself.
In the end — but this is where movies, as they must, diverge from real life — he gets his heart, or at any rate a heart-shaped watch, as a sort of merit badge. Even in the movies, you can’t get a real heart if you’re born without one, though you get points for wanting it.
Obama is the Tin Man who doesn’t want a heart, but who likes to pretend he has one. It’s not a very convincing show, though, when you program drones in the knowledge they will kill and maim the innocent, and when you throw people into jail for exposing torturers while protecting the torturers themselves.
The interesting thing, though, is that Democrats, having shunned Obama almost from the first moment of his presidency, have now decided they want to be just like him. More precisely, they are discovering they have always been exactly who he is: the Tin Man without a heart.
Once upon a time, the Democratic Party elected a suitably patrician candidate, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who campaigned on a platform of balancing the budget that his spendthrift opponent, Herbert Hoover, had allowed to get out of whack in the midst of the Great Depression. Roosevelt then turned around and did what so many politicians do: he broke his solemn promise and spent like crazy to save the Republic. This was called the New Deal.
When FDR got warmed up, he promised us four freedoms, one of which was freedom from want. I guess you could say there was a bit of difference between Democrats and Republicans back then, though there were the Jim Crow Dixiecrats who preferred to keep the Old Plantation going. But that was a long time ago.
There wasn’t enough steam to do what the British, broke as they were, did after World War II, namely to create a national health insurance system and other civilized amenities. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty was the last gasp of postwar liberalism, and, what do you know, it actually did cut poverty rates in half — for a while.
But free market capitalism couldn’t tolerate that, and so we have inched back up toward Shantytown and will soon be able to congratulate ourselves on returning to a pre-1960s, not to say a pre-1930s standard of living.
Liberalism may always be a mirage, the debt that vice pays to virtue when things get tough. Certainly it had disappeared by the 1970s, when Gore Vidal — no radical, but another certified patrician — remarked that there was only a single party in American politics with two slightly differentiated wings, the Property Party.
When the so-called New Democrats decided to reinvent themselves as Me-Too Republicans in the 1980s, the process was complete. For auld lang syne, Teddy Kennedy was permitted to hang around as the token liberal, and to pass the torch to Obama at the 2008 convention. That was a hoot.
What I like about Republicans is that they proudly strut themselves as the party of evil, which they can afford to do as they service the reigning ideology. What I like about Democrats is … well, I’m stumped there. They’re the distinction without a difference, like TV broadcasters.
They’ve got a message, certainly, which is “elect me.” They just can’t give you a reason why. Maybe it has something to do with not having a heart.
Robert Zaller is a professor of history at Drexel University. He can be contacted at [email protected]