The Republican Party’s right wing might not contain a large number of openly Darwinian folks, but you have to admit, this political species does adapt pretty well. Just as the old-style Vengeful Jesus right wing of the Republican Party faded into at least a temporary sunset, the new-style No Government right wing of the GOP has taken off, carrying all the energy and media momentum behind it right now.
Ron Paul’s win in the straw poll at this past weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington is just the latest indicator of the power shift underway at the grassroots of the GOP. Sure, the Paulers organized and showed up in great numbers simply so that the Great White Hope of Libertarianism could demonstrate the supposed groundswell of regular Americans just itching to elect him president of the United States. But the point is, he did win that CPAC poll. If you can pack supporters into a conference, at least that means you have some. Show me some passionate Mitt Romney backers—if you can.
This is what happens when an ideology finds its moment. Its most prominent champion might be awkward or downright unappealing (think Ralph Nader and consumerism in the 1960s), but if the time is ripe for making the case, the message transcends the messenger. And that kind of transcendence is something Ron Paul needs, of course, as his messaging skills have never been the sharpest.
In Texas, we’ve been seeing this new Republican right grow before our eyes in the unlikely campaign of Debra Medina for governor. In years past, an insurgent right-wing Republican would have had to out-Jesus Perry to out-conservative him. But while Medina, a Southern Baptist, can uncork some pretty good sermonizing about “life” issues if she’s prompted, she hasn’t brought up cultural wedges very much. She has become the hardcore conservative of this moment by talking about cutting property taxes, loosening gun regulations, and lyposuctioning the government in general. She has no money; she has no big-money supporters; she has no experience; to the state Republican Party, she is nothing more than an embarrassing inconvenience. But even if the Glenn Beck “truther” episode halted her momentum at a key moment, she is still running surprisingly strong against two of the supposedly most powerful Republican politicians in this state’s history.
After the Democrats’ big year in 2008, both nationally and (on the state House and urban local fronts) in Texas, it seemed logical to expect the Republicans to find a more moderate way forward. Instead, they’ve outsmarted us all and veered further to the right. The Christian Right GOP was full of free-marketeers, but not of economic radicals. The Libertarian GOP is a potentially more dangerous foe of the liberal society. The Christian Right was never able to get rid of Roe v. Wade. (At least not yet.) But the Libertarian Republicans could very well succeed in unmooring American business from any last remnants of a social obligation. That will not be the very best thing for most of the folks who will cheer it on.
Then again, there are such likable things about the Libs. Libertarians are (so far) a bit less corrupt than their mainstream conservative compadres in the GOP. (Of course, opportunities for corruption have not been plentiful thus far.) They do want to do such quirky-smart things as legalize marijuana and (in Medina’s case) impose a moratorium on executions. Many (though not Medina) support gay marriage. They seem, compared to the Bush-lites of the Texas GOP with their smirking and swaggering, appealingly bright. More than anything, that is what distinguished Paul and Medina, both, in their respective GOP debates. There was evidence of thought, and of honesty, in their answers. The others were performing.
I like that people want to vote for candidates who don’t give them that same old candidate bullshit. But there is some similar B.S. common to the agendas of both the old Republican right and the new model: They both distract folks from the real issues at hand. In Texas, there are serious issues to be addressed. Teen pregnancy. Dropout rates. Howeowners’ insurance rates. Lack of health coverage. Just to name the very first few. But Medina, like Paul, has not achieved unexpected prominence and popularity by addressing any of those issues more sensibly or honestly than her opponents. She’s done it by talking about larger, more abstract principles.
That is refreshing, in a way, and it’s oddly reminiscent of Barack Obama’s campaign, writ small. The central message, in both cases, is systemic change. People respond, in both cases, to their sense that things are messed up very seriously. Obama proposed to fix it; Medina, like Paul, wants to pretty much sweep away the last 100 years of big government build-up and Constitutional rulings and start over again. But in their drastically different ways, both are responding (or were, in Obama’s case) to the collective gut of the country at this snapshot moment.
And with the new instant-analysis coverage of politics, that big vague “Change” message works like a charm. If the messenger is different enough—black, say, like Obama, or looking like she came fresh from a small-town beauty shop rather than a bronzing weekend in The Islands, like Medina—the “change” message sounds real enough. Details are too much to think about. Let’s do something really different, is the prevailing attitude of voters.
But then, some of these change agents do get into office. And the change always shrinks immediately in scope and size. What will happen to the rising Republican right when they elect a Debra Medina and have to start dealing with the shades of gray in policies and legislation rather than the crisp black-and-white “constitutional” talk of the campaign trail? It surely hasn’t been easy for the new Democratic left to watch what happened when they elevated one of their own to the presidency.