IF MONEY TALKS: All devils must be given their due. Yet in the 23 years since he left office, I have yet to bring myself to utter one positive word about Ronald Reagan, sun god of the GOP, so intent have I been in highlighting his many transgressions, shortcomings, and inconsistencies. But now — with his 101st birthday looming on February 6 — even I feel compelled to speak out in the poor man’s defense. Like all deities, The Gipper needs to be rescued from those who presume to worship him the loudest — in this case, Republican presidential aspirants Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. Desperate for some good old days to which they can harken back, both these candidates have wrapped themselves in the sunshiny mantle of the only Santa Barbara resident to occupy the Oval Office. And to steal a line from the O.J. trial, that glove don’t fit.
Among the many things for which Reagan is famous, he sought to add an 11th commandment to the 10 Moses brought down from the burning bush: Thou shall not speak ill of fellow Republicans. To the extent Newt and Mitt can claim compliance with this admonition, it’s only because they’ve been screaming, not speaking. One would think that as a yellow-dog Democrat, I’d relish this self-destructive spectacle. And to large measure, I have. But when I recently found myself thinking that a crazed right-winger like Rick Santorum — who all but believes masturbation equals murder — was making sense, clearly an intervention was called for. (To be fair, Santorum has spoken out against the recent Defense Authorization bill, which gives the military the right to arrest American citizens suspected of terrorism on American soil without charging them and detain them indefinitely. So, too, it should be noted, has Ron Paul.)
As we all know, Mitt decisively and handily won the Florida primary. With a 15-point margin of victory over Newt, it qualified as a certified ass-whupping. In so doing, Mitt accomplished not just the impossible but the unthinkable. He actually managed to go too negative on a political foe for whom no amount of criticism and no amount of scorn could ever qualify as too much. That’s kind of like God creating an object so irresistible that even He could not move it. Mitt and his SuperPAC spent $15 million in Florida, five times more than Newt and his did. With that money, Mitt and his supporters bought and paid for nearly 13,000 TV ads, of which only one percent could be remotely construed as positive. The other 99 percent savaged Newt as a sleazy political hack on the take, all of which is objectively, measurably, and certifiably accurate. This blitzkrieg has allegedly mollified some party insiders who worried Mitt might not have the stomach necessary to get the job done. But such relentlessly negative campaigning also diminishes the campaigner, and Mitt’s negative poll ratings in Florida, especially with the coveted independent voters, has skyrocketed, as well.
Normally, I might be inclined to get all sanctimonious and go “tsk, tsk.” But given the over-the-top scorched-earth policy practiced to perfection by Newt his entire career, it’s hard to wag my finger at Mitt. To an unusual degree, the dysfunctional politics of paralysis now seizing Washington can be laid at Newt’s doorstep. He won control of the House in the early ’90s with a disciplined campaign to demonize anyone who disagreed with his platform as not just un-American, and unpatriotic, but an immoral threat to Western civilization. He issued detailed talking points to his fellow travelers on precisely what words — all negative superlatives — to use in castigating one’s opponents. No nuance need apply. There are no shades of gray; it’s all extremely black and extremely white. And it worked. He took over Congress, and during the Bill Clinton years, famously brought government to a screeching standstill. (Reagan, by contrast, worked famously well with the Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill.)
It’s true Mitt exudes all the insufferably smug entitled arrogance of someone to the manor born and also a Mormon patriarch. All this makes him hard to take. By contrast, Newt’s such an open and shameless hypocrite that it’s almost become his most authentic and appealing virtue. Still, it’s worth remembering that Newt’s been married three times, having cheated on wives number one and two with wives two and three. What makes this significant is how self-righteously Newt prosecuted the impeachment of Clinton for Clinton’s extramarital affair. Newt’s willingness to bring the machinery of government to a standstill over something so irrelevant — especially given his own personal life — indicates how spectacularly amoral and opportunistic he is. And it also makes Newt appear more comfortable in his own skin. He’s the Republican Id Monster doing battle against the GOP’s self-appointed Super Ego. In the movies, the prince is always boring and the bad boy gets the girl. In real life, however, the bad boy’s often just a creep. Again, Newt seems comfortable with his own personal creepiness. American politicians have long appealed to the lesser angels of our racist selves in order to get elected. But it used to be they pretended otherwise; they’d adopt a not-so-subliminal code-speak that communicated their meaning without resorting to explicit language that could be objected to. Newt has dispensed with such evasions and derisively refers to President Barack Obama as “The Food Stamp President,”and now has exhorted the “Entertainer in Chief” to stop singing Al Green songs.
As they say, we’ve come a long way. In this case, that’s not a good thing. I can see why Republicans look so longingly to the good old days when Ronald Reagan was at the helm. I do, too, and I never liked Reagan in the first place.