Can Republicans tell the truth to themselves?
To understand how far the republic founded by the famously truthful George Washington has become a mendacious nation, you need look only as far as the Weather Channel. According to a report, the meteorologists there deliberately and routinely tell untruths about the prospect of rain so that when it turns out to be sunny the network’s viewers feel unexpectedly happy. The practice, it seems, is widespread among weather forecasters. Joe Sobel, a meteorologist for Accuweather, tells his audience it will rain when he knows the likelihood is small because “when the forecast is for good weather and it’s bad, I certainly will get more grief than if the forecast is for bad weather and it’s good.”
When the accuracy of even weather forecasting, a once factual, rigorous, scientifically determined service relied upon by everyone from farmers to sailors, is compromised for fear of causing offense, America has reached a state of quotidian deceit even George Orwell did not reckon on. Lying over the weather is not the compulsive lying of Richard Nixon: “People have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.” Or the visceral lying of Lance Armstrong, who even lied when he confessed to Oprah Winfrey, using the lying words, “I can’t lie to you …” and “I’m not going to lie to you or to the public …” Nor is it even the crooked lies of the price-fixing bankers who misled the markets and cost us all a pretty penny when they concocted the Libor lending rate to suit themselves.
Lying about the weather to please the masses is not so much lying as pandering on a prodigious scale. Bowing down before the voters has become so commonplace in Washington that when someone says something from the heart that is likely to provoke contemplation or discussion, they are dismissed as foolhardy. The president’s second inaugural address was full of soaring language and high ideals that reflected his ambitions for the nation. But Barack Obama was so liberal in his vision that the speech was derided by opponents as un-presidentially divisive and absurdly idealistic. The same charge was made against Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address from the Democratic side. How dare the president say what he believes and where he is heading? Tell us what we like to hear, or at the least say something that will not offer hostages to fortune. Please pander more and stop talking like a leader.
Democratic leaders have no need to pander. Their next presidential candidates are already lining up, and it would be foolhardy indeed to dare tell Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden what to say or do. They are so obviously leaders with their own thoughts and agendas that the Democratic base is ready to follow them wherever they lead. That may be bad for party democracy, but it is good for winning elections. The Republican leadership, meanwhile, is so buffeted and bossed around by its Tea Party base that it conjures up images of high-rise ladder fire engines that have a driver at the front and another at the rear to steer round tight corners. The hilarious 2012 GOP primary season was a panderers’ parade, with every last candidate so eager to get on the right side of the far right they ended up, like poor Mitt Romney, as tangled as a fairground contortionist.
At a Republican National Committee election inquest in Williamsburg, Virginia, last week, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal risked his future as a 2016 presidential candidate by engaging in some straight talking. “We’ve got to stop being the Stupid Party. It’s time for a new Republican Party that talks like adults,” he said. ”We had a number of Republicans damage the brand this year with offensive and bizarre comments. I’m here to say we’ve had enough of that.” And: “A debate about which party can better manage the federal government is a very small and shortsighted debate. If our vision is not bigger than that, we do not deserve to win.” He declared that “the Republican Party does not need to change our principles ‑ but we might need to change just about everything else we do.” That’s not a message the Republican base wants to hear, but it sure sounds like leadership.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, too, has decided it is time to abandon pandering and offer an election-winning alternative. He thinks the endless talking points about Benghazi, abortion, gay marriage and taxes plainly did not resonate with voters and will soon advocate policies designed to broaden the GOP’s appeal beyond the base to embrace moderate Republicans who have been turned off by the hoary mantras of the “closed system” dogmatists content merely to talk to each other.
Speaking to an audience of the world’s political and business elite at Davos, well out of Tea Party earshot, Cantor described the 2012 election as “a wake-up call for a lot of folks” and spoke of introducing “sane immigration policies,” adopting German economic growth strategies and helping the unemployed find jobs. He will propose specific policies at the American Enterprise Institute on Feb. 5 that include private-school vouchers for poor parents, new workforce training programs and easy-to-obtain visas to lure high-tech immigrants – subjects [r3] that brand him as a dangerous appeaser among many of his party’s faithful.
These are early days in the Republican postmortem. Some appear ready to face the facts of defeat and avoid the head-on confrontation urged by their allies in what some conservatives describe as “the media-industrial complex” that earns its keep by urging on GOP extremists. Charles Krauthammer, a keeper of the complex, knows which side his bread is buttered and advises more of the same. “Ignore the trimmers,” he declared within hours of the November defeat. “There’s no need for radical change. … No whimpering. No whining. No reinvention when none is needed. Do conservatism but do it better. There’s a whole generation of leaders ready to do just that.” It is a sure recipe for permanent Democratic government.
Footnote: The story of George Washington, on being accused of chopping down a cherry tree, saying, “I can’t tell a lie, Pa. You know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet,” was itself a lie, made up by an early biographer, Mason Locke Weems.
Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics is published by W.W. Norton. Read extracts here.
PHOTO: Lightning strikes over a pier during a storm in Atlit, near the northern Israeli city of Haifa October 25, 2012. REUTERS/Baz Ratner