Sunday, January 13, 2008

Sunday Reading

Party Poopers: George F. Will and Jonah Goldberg represent two generations of the Republican Party: the staid patrician, secure in his bow tie pedantry like a tenured college professor; and the sloppily-dressed frat boy with Cheeto crumbs trailing down his “No Fat Chicks” t-shirt and a trust fund to pay for the Bimmer. Mr. Will’s idea of a good time is cocktails and canapes from Dean and Deluca discussing supply-side economics and the merits of anti-trust legislation as it effects baseball, all to the tune of a Haydn string quartet; Jonah’s dream party is a kegger where the jocks actually think he’s cool, the chicks dig him, and Radiohead is on the CD player. Today both of them look at what’s happening to the GOP in the presidential campaign, what it means for their prospects in November, and the future of the party beyond the election.

First up is Mr. Will, who crunches the numbers like a hard-core accountant.

The first year of the 2008 campaign — think about that — has clearly established that the Republican Party’s prospects are cloudy. In the first two major contests, Mike Huckabee has finished first and third, John McCain fourth and first, Mitt Romney second twice. Rudy Giuliani has been treading water, waiting for Florida, which on Jan. 29 will allocate more convention delegates (114) than Iowa, Wyoming and New Hampshire combined (92). So, clinging to clichés as to a lifeline, Republicans congratulate themselves on how evenly the party’s strengths, such as they are, are spread among their candidates.

But although only one-third of 1 percent of the national electorate — those who have participated in the Iowa, Wyoming and New Hampshire nominating events — have spoken, the Democrats have even more reason than they did three weeks ago to look forward to a rollicking November. Realistic Republicans are looking for shelter.

Nov. 4 could be their most disagreeable day since Nov. 3, 1964. Actually, this November could be even worse, because in 1964 Barry Goldwater’s loss of 44 states served a purpose, the ideological reorientation and revitalization of the party. Which Republican candidate this year could produce a similarly constructive loss?

Today, all the usual indicators are dismal for Republicans. If that broad assertion seems counterintuitive, produce a counterexample. The adverse indicators include: shifts in voters’ identifications with the two parties (Democrats now 50 percent, Republicans 36 percent); the tendency of independents (they favored Democratic candidates by 18 points in 2006); the fact that Democrats hold a majority of congressional seats in states with 303 electoral votes; the Democrats’ strength and the Republicans’ relative weakness in fundraising; the percentage of Americans who think the country is on the “wrong track”; the Republicans’ enthusiasm deficit relative to Democrats’ embrace of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, one of whom will be nominated.

[…]

Republicans should try to choose the next president. They cannot avoid choosing how their party will define itself, even if by a loss beneath a worthy banner.

He has a lot more numbers and statistics to prove his point, but the bottom line — to coin a phrase — is that the Republicans are in deep trouble because they cannot make up their mind as to what the party represents any more. Their campaign slogan might as well be “Grab a Paddle,” because they know what creek they’re up.

Mr. Will spoke of “clinging to clichés as to a lifeline.” To prove that point, welcome to the Jonah Goldberg Cliché Festival:

Well, this wasn’t the plan.

As pretty much everyone has noticed, the Republican race hasn’t exactly followed any of the scripts laid out for it. Mitt Romney has been hacked apart like the Black Knight in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” John McCain’s fortunes – which had been bouncing up and down like a printout of Dick Cheney’s EKG – have suddenly spiked northward after his victory in New Hampshire. Fred Thompson ran a brilliant “testing the waters” campaign from his front porch, but when he tried to walk on the water, he sank like a basset hound trying to swim. Pushing the poor beast under the waves was Mike Huckabee, whose down-home folksiness makes Thompson look like David Niven.

Huckabee’s surprise surge in Iowa has made him this season’s pitchfork populist, albeit a much nicer one – sort of a Disneyland Pat Buchanan. Then there’s Ron Paul. He started out as the designated wack job, then became so successful that the Des Moines Register had to cast Alan Keyes in the role of hopeless firebrand wingnut for a brief campaign cameo. And it’s a sign of how poorly Rudy Giuliani – once the indisputable front-runner – has done that I’m now mentioning him only after Paul.

Of course, this could all change with the next contest.

Much of this chaos is attributable to the fact that this is a very flawed field, or at least one ill-suited for the times we’re in. If a camel is a horse designed by committee, then this year’s Republican field looks downright dromedarian. This slate of candidates has everything a conservative designer could want – foreign policy oomph, business acumen, Southern charm, Big Apple chutzpah, religious conviction, outsider zeal, even libertarian ardor – but all so poorly distributed. As National Review put it in its editorial endorsement of Romney (I am undecided, for the record): “Each of the men running for the Republican nomination has strengths, and none has everything – all the traits, all the positions – we are looking for.”

But conservatives should contemplate the possibility that the fault lies less in the stars – or the candidates – than in ourselves. Conservatism, quite simply, is a mess these days. Conservative attitudes are changing. Or, more accurately, the attitudes of people who call themselves conservatives are changing.

[…]

There are important differences – on national security, the role of government, religion – among the different brands of conservatism bubbling up. But none of them necessarily reflects the views of the pro-government and social conservative rank and file. The center of the right does not hold, and so we see an army with many flags and many generals and nobody knows who goes with which.

In other words, there’s a huge crowd of self-described conservatives standing around the Republican elephant shouting “Do something!” But what they want the poor beast to do is very unclear. And it doesn’t take an expert in pachyderm psychology to know that if a big enough mob shouts at an elephant long enough, the most likely result will be a mindless stampede ¿ in this case, either to general election defeat or to disastrously unconservative policies, or both.

The traditional conservative believes that if you don’t have a good idea for what an elephant should be doing, the best course is to encourage it to do nothing at all. Alas, the chorus shouting, “Don’t just do something, stand there!” shrinks by the day.

What Mr. Goldberg doesn’t seem to realize (and Mr. Will, to his credit, does) is that arguing about what kind of conservatism the GOP should advocate is a lot like the guys at Ford in 1959 fighting over which models of the Edsel to promote in 1960. The voters are turning away from the Republicans in record numbers. A lot of it has to do with the current administration and the never-ending list of errors, both tragic and comic, and their practice of politics trumping government. And, as Mr. Goldberg notes, the GOP is discovering that voters actually want competent government services like FEMA and Medicare and don’t think that illegal immigrants should be rounded up and deported as a matter of course. In other words, the Democrats might be on to something with all that talk about getting health care to everyone, funding education, and minding their own business when it comes to gay marriage and a woman’s right to control the functions of her own body.

What is surprising is that both Mr. Will and Mr. Goldberg lay the fault for this impending doom for the party squarely at the feet of the Republicans themselves. There are no claims of Democratic perfidy or conspiracy theories about the witchcraft* of Hillary Clinton and the middle name of Barack Obama. Rest assured that such dispassionate introspection on the part of the right wing will not be tolerated much longer.

*The use of the term “witchcraft” is not an accident. I’ve been getting spam e-mails claiming that Hillary Clinton has been casting spells over her opponents since her years in Arkansas.

He Hears Voices: Frank Rich hears echoes of the past in Hillary Clinton’s speeches.

She had me at “Well, that hurts my feelings.”

One cliché about Hillary Clinton is true. For whatever reason — and it’s no crime — the spontaneous, outgoing person who impresses those who meet her offstage often evaporates when she steps into the public spotlight. But in the crucial debate before the New Hampshire primary, the private Clinton popped out for the first time in the 2008 campaign. She parried a male inquisitor’s questioning of her likability by being, of all things, likable.

Not only did Mrs. Clinton betray some (but not too many) hurt feelings with genuine humor, she upped the ante by flattering Barack Obama as “very likable.” Which prompted the Illinois senator to match Mrs. Clinton’s most human moment to date with the most inhuman of his own. To use family-newspaper language, he behaved like a jerk — or, to be more precise, like Rick Lazio, the now-forgotten adversary who cleared Mrs. Clinton’s path to the Senate by boorishly waving a paper in her face during a 2000 debate.

Mr. Obama’s grudging “You’re likable enough, Hillary” made him look like “an ex-husband that was turning over the alimony check,” in the formulation of Paul Begala, a Clinton backer. The moment stood in stark contrast to Mr. Obama’s behavior in the corresponding debate just before the Iowa caucuses. There he raised his head high to defend Joe Biden’s honor when Mr. Biden was questioned about his tic of spouting racial malapropisms.

Whatever the precise impact of the incessant video replays of Mr. Obama’s condescension or of Mrs. Clinton’s later quasi tears, Tuesday’s vote speaks for itself. In her 2.6 percentage-point, 7,500-vote victory, Mrs. Clinton beat Mr. Obama among women voters by 12 percentage points only five days after he carried them by 5 points in Iowa. As we reopen the gender wars, let’s not forget that it’s 2008, not 1968. There are actually some men who are offended by sexist male behavior too. Or by the female misogyny exemplified by the South Carolina woman who asked John McCain in November, “How do we beat the bitch?”

And so an exciting and healthy mano-a-mano battle for the Democratic presidential nomination is finally on. (The biggest losers in New Hampshire’s primary, no one need be reminded, were pollsters and the press.) But if Mrs. Clinton prompted many to give her candidacy a fresh look in the New Hampshire stretch, her victory speech was, to skeptics like myself, a step back. When she talked about how “the process” prompted her to find her “own voice,” I had to ask the same question Clinton fans ask of Mr. Obama: where’s the beef? Though her campaign gave Madeleine Albright and Wesley Clark the hook and replaced them with a backdrop of youthful eye candy on Tuesday night, Mrs. Clinton soon retreated into the same old pro forma Clinton talking points, nominally updated from the 1990s.

Voice is not merely a matter of presenting a softer persona, speaking eloquently, looking authentic on television, cracking jokes or shedding tears — worthwhile attributes for any candidate, including Mr. Obama. Voice is also about content, and in this election, content may yet be king. Though gender, race, age and likability are all factors, the fundamentals of what the public is looking for in the presidential marketplace remains more stable than our economy week after week.

[…]

In Mrs. Clinton’s down-to-earth micropolitics, polls often seem to play the leadership role. That leaves her indecisive when one potential market is pitched against another. Witness her equivocation over Iraq, driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants and even Cubs vs. Yankees. Add to this habitual triangulation the ugly campaigning of the men around her — Mr. Penn’s sleazy invocation of “cocaine” on MSNBC, Bill Clinton’s “fairy tale” rant falsifying Mr. Obama’s record on Iraq — and you don’t have change. You have the acrimonious 1990s that the Republicans are dying to refight, because that’s the only real tactic they have.

It would be good for both her campaign and the presidential race in general if Mrs. Clinton does find her own voice. We’ll know she has done so when it doesn’t sound so uncannily like Bill Clinton and Mark Penn.

Back From the Brink: The Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami may be saved.

Twenty months after South Florida’s oldest regional theater abruptly shut down during its 50th anniversary season, the company’s board has crafted a vision for a reborn Coconut Grove Playhouse.

Working with Miami-Dade County’s Department of Cultural Affairs and consultants at Connecticut-based AMS Planning and Research, board leaders have a draft plan that they will take to theater ”stakeholders” — former subscribers and patrons, business and government leaders, members of the theater community, Coconut Grove activists, historic preservationists and the public — in a series of meetings aimed at getting reaction and sharpening the proposal.

The rebuilding plan would bring together three partners: the playhouse, a local college or university and a commercial developer. They would work together to create, manage and finance an institution that would cost an estimated $6.5 million a year to run.

The plan could lead to a standard-setting institution that would help develop new works and new talent, provide technical or design support to smaller area companies and become a magnet for top-level actors, playwrights and directors, including many who have left Miami to pursue their careers in New York or in cities with established regional theaters.

”The synergy that could exist but never fully existed could benefit all of us,” said GableStage producing artistic director Joseph Adler. ”It could [draw] talented people back or keep them here… If they hire a truly visionary artistic director and put the right economic controls in place, there’s no reason it couldn’t become one of the really significant theater companies in the United States.”

I must confess to a soft place in my theatre heart for the Grove; I performed on stage there in 1972 in a production of Fiddler on the Roof produced by the Drama Department of the University of Miami. It marked the re-birth of the theatre under a new production company and launched an endowment fund at the university called Friends of Theatre that is still active in supporting the Ring Theatre and training great talents. Here’s hoping that this new effort brings about the same results.

Doonesbury: Really old rivalries.

Opus: My God.