Power Vacuum March 17, 2009Posted by Jamie Friedland in Media, Politics.
Tags: Bobby jindal, Democrats, Michael Steele, Obama, Politics, Republicans, RNC, Rush Limbaugh
Chris Rock can predict the future. During Spring Break, I listened to a recording of his stand-up in which he identified the need for a charismatic black leader who could make people believe in themselves. That 1999 routine was just meant to generate laughs, but a decade later it is eerily prophetic.
After years of mismanagement, the Democratic Party finally has a capable, charismatic leader. The Republican Party does not.
With the political tides so thoroughly turned, parallels can be drawn between early Bush II Democrats (especially in 2003-2004) and the current Republicans in how they’ve handled their full minority status. It is early to judge the Republican response, but recent events and polling statistics can still offer insight.
During the last administration, Democrats faced an America that had [at least once] elected a “man of the people;” no Bush-bashing is necessary to establish that Republicans were benefiting from a simple, straightforward message and a president capable of little more. Oops.
Throughout that ordeal, though, the Democratic Party stuck to its goals instead of hopelessly recreating the contemporary success of their opponents. People liked Bush because it seemed like you could have a beer with him. Anybody could envision that a similar experience with John Kerry would be tedious, but Democrats rallied behind him to champion their message anyways.
Today, in a roughly comparable position, Republicans have adopted a different strategy. Ignoring the possibility that voters support President Obama’s policies and not merely his physical qualities, the Republican Party has been trying to emulate just the facade of the recent Democratic success.
During the campaign, the media and public were enthralled by Obama’s youthful vigor and followed each of his daily visits to the gym. The Republican response? Elevate young conservative rising star, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. Only they appear to have picked this fruit a little early.
Despite Jindal’s relative youth, the unpolished, childish simplicity with which he talked down to the nation in his rebuttal to Obama’s speech to Congress was unfortunately familiar. That speech showed that Jindal’s age will have little impact on his party’s preference for the failed policies we voted against in November. And he clearly wasn’t ready for the national stage.
Sidenote: Jindal was so…underwhelming that immediately after his speech people around the country decided that he sounded exactly like Kenneth the Page, the dim country boy character from NBC’s 30Rock. Apparently he thought so too, and actor Jack McBrayer recorded a response to Jindal in character (video).
Similarly, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele’s performance to date casts doubt on the argument that he was selected simply because he was the most qualified candidate. It is perhaps fortunate, then, that neither of these men are really viewed as the party’s current leader.
According to many pundits, Rush Limbaugh is the de facto leader of the Republican Party. And while Limbaugh does have influence, he also has a penchant for saying things respectable people don’t. Steele briefly condemned his remarks as “incendiary” and “ugly,” only to grovel a day later when King Limbaugh got mad. That hierarchy seems clear, but the country is remarkably divided about Limbaugh.
A Rasmussen poll recently found that 44 percent of Democrats but just 11 percent of Republicans view Limbaugh as the leader of the Republican Party. How did that happen? Well, we appear to be witnessing the return an ancient phenomenon: Democrats controlling a media narrative.
Last October, Democratic strategists discovered that only one in ten voters under age 40 views the talk show host favorably. Since then, many Democrats and now even White House officials have engaged Limbaugh directly, propagating this unflattering caricature of conservative America. But while happy to bask in the spotlight, Limbaugh rejects any leadership responsibility.
So while there is confusion about exactly who is leading the party, a January Rasmussen poll shed some light on the type of leader Republicans want; 43 percent of respondents thought that their party had become too moderate, and 55 percent said that Sarah Palin should be the model for the future. A scant 24 percent thought Sen. John McCain was the correct model.
And that’s fine with me. Not because I could tolerate a President Palin (that hurts just to type), but because the harder she pushes, the harder we push back. As David Plouffe explained, “[Palin] was our best fundraiser and organizer in the fall.” Extreme conservatives certainly mobilize their base, but it is clear that when these figures act on the national stage, they galvanize Democrats by alienating moderate, young, and minority voters. And this could explain why the Republicans have responded so differently.
The current Republican retreat to the right could yield wonderful results (for me). With many minorities and especially young voters heavily favoring Democrats, the Republican future is grim. At this rate, the current Republican recession will long outlast the financial one they bequeathed to us.
Recent Republican bumbling reveals an admission that something must change if the party is to have a future. But it must go more than skin deep. If conservatives aren’t prepared for this makeover, they will remain powerless. At least until a Democratic president trashes the country.
A version of the post ran in The Chronicle at Duke University.