Now here’s a worthy project: Speaking to the Republican National Committee recently, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared that it was time for the GOP to “stop being the stupid party. It’s time for a new Republican party that talks like adults ... We had a number of Republicans damage the brand this year with offensive and bizarre comments. We’ve had enough of that.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, there were few cheers. Today’s GOP thrives on idiot contumely. Nor did the crowd applaud Jindal’s pronouncement that Republicans “must not be the party that simply protects the well-off so they can keep their toys. We have to be the party that shows all Americans how they can thrive ... We are a populist party and need to make that clear.”
Now exactly what Jindal means by a populist GOP is almost as interesting as what he thinks would constitute an intelligent political conversation. Apart from those attention-getting pronouncements, his speech was basically what you’d expect from a Louisiana governor to a Republican Party shell-shocked by President Obama’s decisive re-election.
You know, Washington bad, Baton Rouge good; taxes bad, business good, government wicked. A lifetime public employee; Jindal scorns the federal government — except, of course, he wants to be president.
Despite Jindal’s superficial appeal, the idea that any Deep South governor advocating the policies he’s championed would be considered a viable candidate for the presidency in 2016 speaks volumes about the Republican Party’s refusal to face reality.
But more about that anon.
Republicans have committed the unpardonable political sin: They believed their own propaganda. Many can scarcely comprehend how most Americans see things.
Last week Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan wrote something shrewd about the right-wing fixation with President Obama’s otherness. It was always a mistake, she said, to claim “that he’s a Muslim, he’s a Kenyan, he’s working out his feelings about colonialism. Those charges were meant to marginalize him, but they didn’t hurt him. They damaged Republicans, who came to see him as easy to defeat.”
They also hurt Republicans among voters who wondered about the character, motives and competence of people who ranted about transparently false allegations.
However, Noonan then proceeded to conjure her own imaginary Obama: a hard-core leftist determined to redistribute income from rich to poor, the striving middle class be damned. “’You didn’t build that,’” she wrote “are the defining words of his presidency.”
That’s right, conspiracy buffs. To Noonan, President Obama’s political legacy consists of a truncated quote yanked out of context to distort his plain meaning: basically, that the best restaurant in town couldn’t thrive if customers had to bushhog their own roads to get there.
This same Obama, a veritable American Lenin, emerges in the columns of the Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer. “Obama is the apostle of the ever-expanding state,” he writes. “His (inaugural) speech was an ode to the collectivity.”
As evidence, Krauthammer cites the president “clinging zealously to the increasingly obsolete structures of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid ... the very definition of reactionary liberalism.”
Did somebody mention the stupid party?
Putting aside Krauthammer’s characteristic intellectual dishonesty — he pretends that demographic changes since 1936 doom Social Security -- he fails to grasp a fundamental fact of American politics: All three programs are extremely popular with voters. Sixty-eight percent in a recent poll opposed cutting Medicaid; Social Security and Medicare are valued even more. People don’t think they’re obsolete; they want their finances improved and defended.
Obama made a crucial point in his inaugural address. “We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives,” he said, “any one of us at any time may face a job loss or a sudden illness or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative. They strengthen us.
“They do not make us a nation of takers. They free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
Once people see that Obamacare enhances their personal freedom by making it possible to change jobs without giving up medical insurance, it’s apt to prove equally popular. A political party incapable of grasping this elemental truth deserves to lose power.
Meanwhile, down in Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s idea of populism is to eliminate state income taxes altogether while doubling sales taxes. According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, this scheme would greatly benefit corporations and the richest 1 percent, while sharply raising everybody else’s taxes. A public outcry recently caused him to back off a scheme to trim Medicaid costs by eliminating hospice care for terminally ill patients.
Due to entrenched poverty, Louisiana receives far more from the accursed federal government than it remits in taxes -- and always has. People mostly understand that.
In today’s America, however, I seriously doubt that Bobby Jindal’s act is going to play.
(Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.)