The Louisiana governor is correct: Republicans are distracting themselves with ad hominem absurdities
When Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal spoke to the Republican Leadership Conference over the weekend, he argued that the right should oppose President Obama without hating him. "We as Republicans are Americans first -- we have to have respect for the office of the president. We need to be serious about this debate, it's an important debate about the future of our country. We can't be distracted by ad hominem attacks," he said. "I think it's hypocritical to say, well, it's not patriotic when they do that to President Bush but it's okay for our side to it to President Obama."
His argument included an appeal to patriotism and a warning against hypocrisy, but the line most likely to persuade GOP partisans to rein in their excesses is the one about being "distracted" by "shrill, absurd, and negative rhetoric." Let's flesh it out. Upon Obama's election, the conservative movement and the GOP's political apparatus had four years to define him in the public's mind. What flaws would they highlight? What arguments would they build over time? Would they succeed in getting anti-Obama narratives to take hold in order to exploit them during the 2012 election?
Some partisans responded with savvy. They cast Obama as a tool of Wall Street, insisted that he is an irresponsibly profligate spender, and started building a case against the health-care overhaul, his signature policy achievement. Others responded like that unpleasant uncle at Thanksgiving. They crusaded for Obama's birth certificate, posited that his actions are motivated by a Kenyan anti-colonialist ideology, and insisted that he prefers cozying up to terrorists to fighting them.
The true believers who bought into these conspiracy theories are best pitied. Ire is better aimed at the people who knew better, but played on the anxieties of the conspiracy minded in an attempt to sell books or improve their TV ratings. Think of Roger Ailes, keeping Glenn Beck on the air all those months knowing full well that much of his program consisted of transparently idiotic nonsense. Or the colleagues of Andy McCarthy who plugged his book knowing full well that Obama isn't the leader of a movement that has allied itself with our Islamist enemy in a "grand jihad" against the U.S. For those people, the ad hominem attacks, the conspiracy theories, and the egregious hyperbole were very lucrative. Or else cathartic. Weren't they sticking it to the dread Obama, who they earnestly believed to be hurting America?
Its wisdom as political strategy is another matter.
Take the birthers. It isn't just that most Americans laughed at them, or that Obama could totally undercut them at any moment. It's that every minute spent talking about their bizarre theories had an opportunity cost. It took away from the time more sober Obama critics had to develop and voice criticism. True, the intellectually indefensible right and the sane right weren't divvying up a fixed amount of TV time. But the public is vaguely aware of the biggest political story at a given moment. Donald Trump alone made too many of those moments about presidential birth certificates.
And Glenn Beck made them about... it's hard to remember, isn't it? What did that second chalk board say on the back side after he flipped it over? Something convoluted and menacing that by now doesn't even seem real to the people who were riveted by it. As for the folks who spent all that time building the "Obama is allied with the enemy and uninclined to kill terrorists" narrative... the Osama bin Laden killing destroyed it. A lot of strong cases could be built against Obama's national security instincts. So far, much time has been wasted on laughably weak cases.
The point isn't that the right has its crazies. So does the left. I know of no evidence that one side has more than the other, nor do I care to draw a false equivalence because I don't know that the relative numbers, whatever they are, even matter. Better to pit the strongest arguments in American life against one another, and elevate the winners. I do think that the conservative movement elevates, rallies around, and sometimes even celebrates its crazies so consistently that it often obsesses over relatively weak arguments and does damage to its political viability. Rush Limbaugh and Al Sharpton are alike in that they both race-bait and exploit a culture of grievance to aggrandize themselves. One is the single most popular man in an ideological coalition. The other is irrelevant.
I don't know if Jindal would agree with all that. He certainly couldn't say all I have and survive as a Republican politician. But his assertion that certain kinds of attacks are distractions is sound. If more people grasped the opportunity costs at play, they'd stop thinking about their most unhinged ideological allies being useful in firing up the base. They'd start appreciating how hard it is to develop cogent arguments and make them heard when all around you, men who hold themselves to lower standards are shouting into megaphones at the tops of their lungs.
Image credit: Sean Gardner/Reuters