ELEPHANT GRAVEYARDS: The Caucus Room restaurant in Washington [photo at left, from fall 2012] was once popular with leaders of the Republican Party, affectionately symbolized by the elephant in nineteenth-century newspaper illustrations drawn by German-born political cartoonist Thomas Nast. Not far from the restaurant—in the rotunda of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History—is a work of taxidermy popular with Republican tourists: a huge armature of wood and metal lathe, stuffed with clay and girdled in the two-ton hide of a dead male African rogue elephant.
Suicide by Stupidity:
How the Republican Party is Killing Itself
by Thomas Adcock
WASHINGTON—Here in the marble and limestone capital of the United States, famous throughout the world as a city surrounded on all sides by reality, a Republican Party watering hole of recent vintage was the Caucus Room restaurant. It was a leathery, meaty, boozy, and expensive downtown boîte hard by the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Parties desirous of closed curtains and discreet waiters could select from a number of private rooms ideal for partisan conspiracy.
Historians might place a brass marker over the door of 401 Ninth Street NW as indication that a secret dinner there on a winter’s night of four years ago was the beginning of the end of the once noble Republican Party, nowadays afflicted with the unshakable baggage of proto-fascist yahoos of the Tea Party congregation and cowed leaders of the old-time conservative religion. Together, they seem hell-bent on committing political suicide by means of stupidity.
If anything, I understate the case for the willful extinction of one of America’s only two political entities of electoral capability. And a characterization of Republicans as obtuse right-wing clodhoppers is hardly mine alone. To wit:
• On February 8, a bluntly exasperated Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, worn down by the carnival of ignorant invective from his comrades during the federal elections of 2012, told a meeting of the Republican National Committee in Charlotte, North Carolina, “Stop being the stupid party!” Mr. Jindal is said by media pundits to be a Republican contender for president in 2016.
• On August 21 last year, former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough of Florida, now host of a popular morning news and commentary program on MSNBC Television, was likewise exasperated. “I’m just tired of the Republican Party being the stupid party,” he said, to his national audience. “Stupid people saying stupid things and scaring off independent voters and swing voters.”
• In the fall of 2009, a prominent upstate New York merchant by the name of Norman Young was horrified to see Tea Party know-nothings consolidating control of his beloved Republican establishment. In his bid for a seat on the Rensselaer County Legislature, Mr. Young switched his political allegiance to the Democratic Party because, he told me, “Republicans have become stupid.” Mr. Young’s many powerful Republican antecedents include Schuyler Colfax, Jr. (1823-1885), speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln and vice-president under Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885), eighteenth president of the United States.
In the New York gubernatorial race of 2010 that further horrified Mr. Young, Republicans voters became disgusted by the strangely hateful and violent remarks of party standard-bearer Carl Pasquale Paladino, the owner of discount stores peddling schlock merchandise from Chinese sweat shops who called his opponent Anrdew Cuomo a “gutless coward.”
Typical of Mr. Paladino’s homophobic sentiments was, “Children should not be exposed to homosexuality, especially at a Gay Pride parade [where] they wear these little Speedos and they grind against each other.” Then there was the threat of assault, or perhaps death, made against an Albany newspaperman who reported that Mr. Paladino had fathered a girl by his mistress, and had kept the whole thing a secret from his wife: “You send another goon to my daughter’s house,” Mr. Paladino vowed, “and I’ll take you out, buddy!”
Mr. Cuomo trounced Mr. Paladino by a near two-to-one margin. Unfazed, Mr. Paladino is now running for a seat on the nine-member board of education in Buffalo, the state’s second largest city. He told the daily newspaper there of his regard for the currently constituted board. If elected, said Mr. Paladino “I’m going to destroy them. All nine of them.”
Mr. Young’s conversion to Democrat is not an isolated matter. In New York and elsewhere from coast to coast, Republicans still of sound mind are rapidly becoming Democrats, or at least registered Independents likely to vote against Paladinoesque bigots and blowhards—over which the old party of Abe Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ike have little if any more control.
Given the way things are progressing, if one chooses to call such things progress, America could well become a one-party nation. History warns us of such development. If, indeed, the Republican Party dies, the genesis of blame will surely be traced to a last supper in the Caucus Room.
The winter’s night in question was January 20, 2009. A gang of fourteen Republican panjundrums—“pale, male, and stale,” according to Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation magazine—gathered around a square table in a private room.
Among the esteemed gang were:
• Eric Cantor of Virginia, now second in command of the Republican-ruled House;
• Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, disciple of the fascistic polemicist Ayn Rand (1905-1982) and Republican candidate for vice-president in 2012;
• Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who told a radio interviewer in 2011, “As people become more dependent on government they become less dependent on God,” and who resigned from the Senate last year in favor of a multi-million offer to head up a right-wing policy organization;
• Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who acknowledged his volatility during an interview with a hometown radio station by saying, “It’s a good thing I’m not allowed to carry a gun on the Senate floor”;
• Senator John Ensign of Nevada, who would resign from office two years after the dinner in the face of an ethics investigation by his colleagues that might have seen him thrown out of the Senate for borrowing more than $900,000 [€686,601] from his parents to buy silence from the female staff aide with whom he had ongoing sexual relations and for arranging employment from the staff aide’s irked husband;
• Newt Gingrich of Georgia, direct-mail order hustler and one-time House speaker who was the recipient of $10 million [€7.63 million] in campaign funds from a single donor to his failed bid for the Republican presidential primary campaign last year—Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson, whose company is soon to be indicted in a federal court for allegedly bribing Chinese officials in connection with his casinos in Macau—and who said of urban students, “Poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working, and nobody around them works…They have no habit of ‘I do this and you give me cash,’ unless it’s illegal…Most of these schools ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor, and pay local students to take care of the school.”
Host of the Caucus Room cabal was Republican propagandist Frank Luntz, not infrequently described in the press as a pudgy American version of Reichspropagandaminister Joseph Goebbels. All were agreed on strict party opposition to anything and everything advanced by the newly elected, wildly popular President Barack Obama—who in a week’s time would collect the Nobel Peace Prize. Opposition even to measures that Republicans themselves had supported, and even if it meant sabotaging the national economy. How best, the conspirators asked, to organize systematic obstruction of the nation’s business?
In the moment, perhaps the beefeaters considered themselves wise men. With the passage of a few years’ time, however, their obdurate plot seems anything but wise.
Very little of what acutely stupid politicians do or say in Washington remains forever secret. Consequently, details of Mr. Luntz’s invitation-only dinner emerged with last year’s publication of “Do Not Ask What Good We Do,” a book by New York Times contributor Robert Draper—grandson of Leonidas “Leon” Jaworski (1905-1982), a prosecutor of Nazi-era war crimes who would send high-ranking officials to prison in the 1970s for criminal conduct during the Republican administration of President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994).
A square table made sense to Mr. Luntz: conspiracies are more efficiently hatched when conspirators face one another. So seated, the Republican éminences grises of ‘09 hoovered filet mignon entrées (bloody) and tossed back an abundance of martinis (very dry) as they crafted a blueprint to thwart the Democratic president and his allies in Congress. Their principal tool, as this month’s Vanity Fair magazine terms it, would be “legislative constipation.”
This was not a greasy plot common in fractious Washington, and the focus of opposition was not the common sort of president. For as Mr. Luntz’s schemers feasted and schemed through the night, Mr. Obama and his bride, Michelle, made the rounds of gala capital balls in celebration of a more uplifting historical marker: the voters of America had decided, for the first time and emphatically so, that a black man should occupy the big white house at 100 Pennsylvania Avenue—built between 1792 and 1800 by African slaves.
Times change. And with change comes paradox. For instance: one hundred and fifty years to the month after Mr. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and began the civic enfranchisement of African Americans—a process not quite complete—doyens of his own Republican Party held a clandestine meeting in an elite Washington steakhouse to butcher any chance of success for an African American president, for no evident reason than the color of his skin.
Institutions evolve with change, or perish by resisting. The Caucus Room of 2009 is now the Social Reform Kitchen & Bar; it is less leathery, and less pricey. Republican pilgrims in search of tchotchkes from elephantine watering holes such as the old Caucus Room—elephants being the affectionate symbol of the Lincoln-era party, a depiction invented by the German-born cartoonist Thomas Nast—are asked to walk about fifteen minutes southerly down Ninth Street from the restaurant to Constitution Avenue. There, in the rotunda of the Smithsonian, stands a hulking work of taxidermy emblematic of a Republican Party teetering around the rim of self-demise: an armature of wood and metal lathe stuffed with clay, plaster, and sisal fiber, and girdled in the two-ton hide of a male African rogue elephant killed in Angola in 1955.
One might think that Republicans are generally capable of learning. Which is true in the case of the exasperated Messrs. Jindal, Scarborough, and Young. But as gentlemen of an intellectual minority within (and increasingly without) a party that abjures science, liberalism in the deliberative sense, and—heaven forfend!—demographic change in American since 1955, they are exceptions to a sorry rule.
In last November’s federal elections, President Obama defeated a Republican candidate (Willard “Mitt” Romney) who looked and sounded like a 1950s-era television game show host and exhibited little more in the way of cognition. Mr. Romney, who believed that his impressive investment portfolio qualified him for the presidency, was ecumenical in pandering to lowbrow billionaires and Tea Party thugs alike; in doing so, he managed to offend women, blacks, Latinos, Asian-Americans, college students, pensioners, political independents, and thinking Republicans—all of whom voted in greater measure for Mr. Obama.
Mr. Obama’s victory came despite the concerted efforts of Republican officials in control of governments in populous states such as Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Texas, Indiana, and Virginia to suppress the votes of racial minorities—a segment forecast to soon become America’s collective majority.
Early last December, as workers were busy with preparations for Mr. Obama’s second inauguration, I had a White House chat with two black women, both in their mid-sixties, one from Virginia and one from Maryland—states where Republican legislators made election day difficult for such women by reducing voting hours and locations. Like me, they were guests at a holiday reception. Each had waited for nearly eight hours to cast their ballots for the Democratic president. I asked them, Why did you go through that?
Their answer, “They made us mad. Republicans want to take away our right to vote.”
As for candidates in the Congressional contests last November, voters returned control of the Senate to Democrats—with the bonus of two upset victories over Republicans ajudged even more offensive than Mr. Romney. On the House side, Republicans retained a ruling majority due to odious redistricting in Republican-controlled states; even so, the Republican side of the aisle was reduced by six members, and lost the nationwide popular vote to Democrats by nearly a half-million ballots cast.
Never mind. House Speaker John Boehner—the sunlamped Ohio Republican famous for passing out free cigarettes courtesy of tobacco lobbyists and for his admirable attendance record at barroom cocktail hours—called his return to power a “mandate” on par with the triumphant reëlection of President Obama.
All things considered, the Republicans were stomped in 2012. One way or another, opinion polls revealed a public disgust with the party’s refusal to participate in governance, à la “legislative constipation” that has seen a succession of parliamentary stunts to stall or plunder even the most innocuous Democratic initiatives and proposed appointments to the judiciary—and which is responsible for the onset of painful budgetary cutbacks, leading inexorably toward the disaster of European-style austerity measures.
Parcity to come includes the elimination, or at least drastic reduction, of disability payments to military veterans who lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is due to a federal budget in limbo, caused by Republican insistence on defying the president by preserving tax loopholes for the ultra-wealthy at the expense of ordinary Americans; accordingly, the administration is now required by so-called sequestration law to make indiscriminate, painful, across-the-board cuts to programs and services designed for the poor and middle classes. Under sequestration, a mordant Washington observer theorized, might soon see a fat man have his legs amputated in order to lose weight.
Never mind the inconvenient truth of a public furious about the root of all that is wrong with Congress: the colossal stupidity of small men in high office, whose first order of business was to exempt their generous salaries from sequestration.
In a survey conducted by the firm Public Policy Polling, based in Raleigh, North Carolina, a representative sample of American voters was asked to contrast the favorability of Congressional Republicans with a variety of other things and persons. According to the results, released in mid-January, Republicans are less desirable than cockroaches, dental surgery, Genghis Khan, head lice, and colonoscopies. (In the interest of even-handed journalism, the PPP survey respondents found Republicans marginally preferable to North Korea, the ebola virus, telemarketers, and gonorrhea.)
In the final chapter of Mr. Draper’s book about the Caucus Room proceedings, the author quotes Mr. Gingrich, who is on the faculty of a third-tier university in the Deep South as an academic specialist in “futurism.” Professor Gingrich told his fellow diners, “You will remember this day. You’ll remember this as the day the seeds of 2012 were sown.”
The professor’s prediction was true, but it was surely not the truth he had in mind, given his eventual failure to win the Republican presidential nod and the rejection of down-ticket Republican candidates in the stranglehold of Tea Party extremists. As television journalist Chuck Todd said, with reference to a pleasure boat capsized for three days in January off the Mexican coast with an incompetent crew and more than four thousand panic-stricken passengers aboard, “The Republican Party is about as popular as Carnival Cruise Lines right now.”
And right now there are few if any signs that Republicans will cast away the seeds of 2012 in time for Congressional elections upcoming in November 2014, when Democrats have reasonable confidence of casting out fools. These are a (very) few of the things Republicans have been up to since being stomped last year:
• Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, the hope of Tea Party true believers to capture the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, recently delayed the president’s appointment of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel by insinuating that Mr. Hagel, formerly a moderate Republican senator from Nebraska, was paid for speeches by the Stalinist government of North Korea—and the utterly fictive terrorist organization “Friends of Hamas.” When Mr. Cruz was, remarkably, a student at Harvard Law School in the early 1990s, he claimed there was exactly one Republican on the faculty, and twelve communists “who believed in the overthrow of the U.S. government,” according to New Yorker magazine contributor Jane Mayer. Mr. Cruz confirmed the Mayer report. One of his Harvard professors confirmed his Republican bona fides, and said he remembered a half dozen other such partisans on the faculty; he could not, however, recollect a revolutionary communist cell.
• Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, named in honor of the aforementioned fascist author, conducted an old-fashioned filibuster this week by speaking continuously for thirteen hours against the president’s proposed appointment of a new director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Among other readings, he entertained his colleagues with selections from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” a nineteenth-century satire by the British writer Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll) about a girl who falls down a rabbit hole to find herself adrift in a fantasy world populated by odd and anthropomorphic creatures. Mr. Paul also demonstrated his ignorance of German history during the Weimar Republic by insisting that Adolf Hitler “was elected democratically” as chancellor. At the conclusion of his filibuster, Mr. Rand announced that he was “exploring” the idea of running for president in ‘16.
• Last month, the Republican-controlled legislature of Mississippi, a state that ranks dead last in most American socio-economic categories, ratified the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The amendment, pushed through Congress in the days prior to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, bans slavery in America.
• A new book by former Governor Jeb Bush of Florida—son of President George H.W. Bush and brother of America’s all-time worst president, George W. Bush—was published last week. In it, Jeb Bush advocated a “path to citizenship” for the eleven million undocumented workers. Also last week, the author disavowed such advocacy, noting that it was formulated an entire year ago. He now opposed citizenship for those whose arrival in the U.S. was not kosher, he insisted. An entire day later, Mr. Bush softened his opposition. He, too, is running for the Republican presidential nomination in ’16.
This weekend begins the all-important showcase for Republicans hoping to become the next president—the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, in a suburb of Washington. Messrs. Cruz, Paul, and Bush—as well as the hyper-ambitious Congressman Paul Ryan—will strut their stuff, as potential choices from the large pool of pale and stale right-wingers.
Breaking the male tradition of CPAC speakers will be Sarah Palin, the half-term governor of Alaska who ran for vice-president in 2012 with a claim of foreign policy experience based on her frequent sightings of an island on the Russian side of the Bering Strait, and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. In October 2008, Ms. Bachmann said in a nationally televised interview program that Congress should launch an investigation of itself to “find out who’s pro-American, and who’s against America.”
Other scheduled speakers are ex-Congressman Allen West, ousted from office last year by Florida voters weary of his misogynistic stridency, among many other things; Donald Trump, the strangely-coiffed billionaire poseur who suggests, to this day, that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and is thus constitutionally constrained from assuming the presidency; and Mr. Romney himself, who has blamed his loss to Mr. Obama on the president’s “gifts” to poor people and racial minorities—gifts, so-called, that include the Affordable Care Act as the beginning of universal health insurance somewhat resembling the German model.
“Republicans have lost their ever-lovin’ minds,” according to Nina Turner, a Democratic member of the Ohio State Legislature.
Indeed. By any analysis, Republicans have settled on stupidity as the mainstay of their (limited) future.
Copyright © 2013 Thomas Adcock
Thomas Adcock is CulturMag’s American correspondent