How do Americans view Barack Obama and his relationship with the Republican minority? Nearly 80 percent say that Obama is outstripping their expectations as a President; nearly 70 percent say he is delivering on his promises; roughly two-thirds of Americans approve his performance. Republicans do not fare so well. Their approval numbers come in at half or less of Obama’s, and the public believes, also by a large margin, that Obama has stretched out a hand of cooperation to the Congressional G.O.P., and they have responded by spurning him. The public, it seems, is forming a very harsh judgment on the performance of the Republican leadership, which in time of crisis has reduced itself to a simple mantra: just say “no.”
The poll also offers us a chance to understand how Republicans view the world. The Washington Post reports: “74 percent of Republicans in the new poll expressed grave worry about the deficit, 29 points higher than in December when George W. Bush held the reins.” Nothing has changed about the deficit—it is still a deficit that George W. Bush created. But the Republican Party’s attitude has been dramatically transformed. Telling indeed.
My theory is that the American public would be happy with an opposition party that plays a constructive role in governance by forcing the exploration of the government’s proposals and putting forward its own alternatives. Our experience as a democracy is that such a process of lively public debate helps us move to correct answers. But the Republicans are not behaving as a responsible opposition party. Their behavior reminds us of John Stuart Mill’s label for the unconstructive Tories: he called them the “stupid party.”
Moreover, the hallmark of contemporary Republican thinking really is stupidity. Consider Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, who responded to a question about whether Obama was a legitimate president with this blather “Well, his father was Kenyan and they said he was born in Hawaii, but I haven’t seen any birth certificate… You have to be born in America to be president.” Shelby, of course, supported John McCain, and there’s no dispute as to where McCain was born: in Coco Solo, Colón Province, Panama. Shelby is apparently vying to become a leader of the party’s rampant Neoconfederate bloc.
Or Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning who told a gathering how excited he was by news that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had pancreatic cancer. She would be dead in nine months, he said, because it was a disease you just don’t survive. Bunning later issued an “apology” that implied that Ginsburg was making a big deal out of his remarks (she never made a comment on them) and in the process misspelled her name.
Or consider South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, whose recent efforts to attack the Obama stimulus package consisted of a stream of nonsense. In a rapid-fire series of remarks, Sanford compared the stimulus to “Weimar Germany” and “the Soviet grain quotas of Stalin’s time.” He reminded us that “people who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” and then drew on comparisons closer to home. “The Golden Gate Bridge was a Hoover-era infrastructure project designed to get the economy going,” he said. “The Hoover Dam was a Depression-era, you know, project designed to get the economy going.” But Sanford wants to condemn the country to a G.O.P. Groundhog Day—his comparisons are not just wrong, they are nutty. Start with the facts that the Golden Gate Bridge and the Hoover Dam are pre-Depression era projects.
And of course there was the recent historical excursion of Ohio Republican Congressman Steve Austria:
“When (President Franklin) Roosevelt did this, he put our country into a Great Depression,” Austria said. “He tried to borrow and spend, he tried to use the Keynesian approach, and our country ended up in a Great Depression. That’s just history.”
Except of course that Roosevelt became president in 1933 and the Great Depression started in 1929 in the presidency of Republican Herbert Hoover.
How does this play to the voters? In an intriguing article in the current National Journal, Ronald Brownstein and David Wasserman take a look at how Republicans are doing with educated voters. Their view: Democrats are scoring “dramatic gains” among better educated voters, namely those who hold college diplomas. They bore into a number of sample counties, like Oakland County, Michigan, which was once reliably Republican—and where well-educated voters now feel the G.O.P. is just too stupid to earn their vote.
The Stupid Party may have appointed Michael Steele as its chairman, but it’s still represented by aging white southern men who seem to have a hankering for re-fighting the Civil War and who emit an unending stream of idiocies when they connect with the media. They lecture us about history and prove in the process that they are schooled on prejudice and venom. They believe that opposing the president in a time of crisis without proposing any credible alternatives of their own is a virtue and that debate is best conducted with fear and superstition and not reason and facts, yet every time they raise their voices they raise the same question: “How did the country come to the domestic and foreign policy mess it now faces?” We don’t have to look far.