It’s basic etiquette to review a new book close to the publication date. Reviewers usually get an advanced “galley” of the book a few weeks before it hits the streets, and it’s just polite to wait until the pub date to run a piece about it. But The Right Path: From Ike to Reagan, How Republicans Once Mastered Politics – and Can Again, the new book by MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, contains a contradiction. A big one. In fact, it’s a contradiction that is at the core of the book’s thesis. So I’m not waiting to write about the book, which comes out November 15. I want to give Joe a chance to correct the manuscript before it drops in stores.
The problem with Scarborough’s thesis can be pinpointed by asking a simply question: has America become more liberal over the course of the last 60 years? That is, from President Eisenhower to President Obama, have sociological, cultural, and even psychological changes made people in the United States become more liberal? And have those changes made it difficult for conservatives to win nationals elections no matter how “moderate” they are?
Scarborough would say no — or yes, depending on what point he is trying to make. And that point is usually to make conservatives look foolish, reactionary, and stupid.
According to The Right Path, the recurring dynamic in American politics over the last 60 years is that politicians from both parties self-destruct, often bringing their parties down with them, by abandoning the political center in order to pander to ideological extremes. It happened when Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964, it happened when the Democrats went hard left and nominated George McGovern in 1972, and it happened when Republicans embraced the Tea Party. The only times it hasn’t happened is with Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama. These men have won, and two terms at that, by hewing close to the center of American politics.
According to Scarborough, the Great Middle of American politics doesn’t change, except when it does, and then it’s usually to the detriment of modern Republicans. Thus this startling sentence from The Right Path: “The winds of history blew Barack Obama’s way in two presidential elections not because of any irreversible sociological trend but because primary voters in that presidential race, as well as supporters of extreme Republicans like Todd Akin, Richard Murdock, Christine O’Donnell, and Sharon Angle, were more interested indulging their Republican resentments than they were in electing a candidate who could win in the fall.”
Does Scarborough remember that Mr. RINO himself, John McCain, ran against Obama in 2008? Then Mitt Romney in 2012, the former Governor of liberal Massachusetts? Mitt Romney, whose upbeat personality, economic expertise and mild attitude towards culture war issues made him a perfect exemplar of exactly the kind of politician Scarborough says we need today?
Apparently Scarborough is aware: “Mitt Romney never fully gained the trust of movement conservatives because he had spent his political career vacillating on political issues much the same way John Kerry had wavered on Iraq.” So it’s important for a Republican to be flexible and be able to run to the center. Because the political center is common sense itself and never changes. As Ike had to repel the John Birchers, so today’s GOP has to reject anyone who thinks dismembering a child in the womb is an extremist position. Or who think marriage is between a man and a woman. But secure your base first. But what if the center has become crazy, and your crazy base is in fact sane?
I’m getting confused, but I think it works something like this. Barack Obama won not by racial demagoguery and fostering resentment among left-wing interest groups — the war on women, etc. — but because of the Tea Party. Mitt Romney lost not because America has moved to the left, making it difficult for any Republican to win, but because he tried too hard to reach compromise with the other side — in other words, by doing exactly what Joe Scarborough thinks a conservative should do. Scarborough then mentions how minority voters went for Obama big time. But that has nothing to do with sociology or a changed America. The “winds of change” blew on Obama’s back because of Christine O’Donnell.
Okay, I’m lost: If a conservative politician wants to win, she has to secure her base but also win over a large chunk of liberal and moderate voters. She can do this by rejecting the yahoos of the far right and hewing close to the center. She has to ease up on the talk about abortion and gay marriage, and send the Tea Party packing. As long as she secures her base.
For the liberal politician, he has to reject the far left and stick to the middle. But what constitutes the middle and does it differ from the far left? From Obamacare to gay marriage, what was considered demented socialism 60 or even 20 years ago is now mainstream liberalism, and even mainstream Americanism. Scarborough doesn’t really acknowledge this shift, and thus gets to have it both ways. Thus a conservative who questions gay marriage is no different from a John Bircher in 1950 ranting about fluoridation in the water. And should Republicans put forward a moderate, conciliatory candidate like Mitt Romney and he still loses, it’s because he didn’t appeal to the base — which should be rejected anyway because they’re nuts. Furthermore, observes Morning Joe, Romney was overwhelmed by demographic shift in multicultural America.
So: in order to win there is a center that a politician needs to adhere to. Until he does. Then he is overcome by sociological reality. Unless he is Barack Obama. Then sociology has nothing to do with it, and it’s all the fault of the Tea Party — which is part of the GOP base and should be secured, unless they are crazy, which they are, so it’s good that Romney didn’t win them over, which he should have, despite the fact that their calls for a balanced budget and free markets and letting children live are far outside the mainstream of America, which really hasn’t changed since Eisenhower. Got it?
Scarborough’s desire to have it all ways is at its most ridiculous when he discusses Ronald Reagan. Early in The Right Path Scarborough Scarborough assess the 1960s, a time when“radical societal shifts caused by a sexual revolution, violent antiwar protests, a growing drug culture, an open rebellion against the church, academia and middle-class mores left millions of Americans feeling that their country was falling apart.”
Yet the rise of Ronald Reagan had nothing to do with any of this. Ronald Reagan was no ideologue, or even much of a conservative. Rather, he was an exemplar of “pragmatic conservatism.” He called those on the far right “kooks.” Never mind his anti-communism (never mentioned by Joe), his pro-life activism, his tax cutting, or even his biting put-downs of the socialist left. Reagan was the second coming of Ike.
I would go on, but I want to be charitable and let Scarborough have another go at the manuscript before the November 15 pub date. Otherwise I might be tempted to dismiss him as a fake-ass blowhard and logorrheic blockhead who loves the sound of his endlessly droning voice and gets a kick out of dissing conservatives.