The GOP's '08 Candidates Can't Keep Dodging Iraq Much Longer
Quietly and miserably, like an anxious mother tiptoeing away from an autistic child who has fallen asleep with his helmet on, the Republican Party continues its hopeless search for a viable nominee while backpedaling from its own disaster in Iraq. The candidates, all of them -- I exclude here Congressman Ron Paul, who is an uninvited guest to this ball -- are fourth-rate buffoons, not one of them qualified to hold down the last ten minutes of a weekday open-mike night in a Skokie comedy club. They are divided into two categories: those who try to avoid talking about Iraq by saying nothing at all, and those who try to avoid talking about Iraq by talking loudly about something else.
One Monday a few weeks back in Newark, New Jersey, I met one of the members of the latter group, Rep. Tom Tancredo. The vengeful Colorado midget's rap is immigration, i.e., convincing Middle America that the War on Terrorism is actually taking place in Mexico. But when he shows up in the ugliest city in America to gloat about three kids allegedly murdered by illegals from Latin America, he is greeted by a crowd of pro-immigrant protesters chanting, "Tancredo! You liar! We'll set your ass on fire!" They're yelling so loudly that no one can hear Tancredo speak from a distance beyond two feet.
The actor Paul Winfield was once asked what was the artistic key to his performance as Don King in a made-for-HBO movie about Mike Tyson. Winfield shrugged and held up his spiky Don King wig. His was a one-trick performance. Tancredo also has only one trick on the campaign trail. Whenever he mentions the words "illegal aliens," he follows them with the word "including." As in:
"Sanctuary cities," he says in Newark, "are safe havens for all illegal aliens, including gang members, drug dealers, rapists and murderers, further exposing the law-abiding citizens of such a city to greater crime." In other words, who cares about Iraq when you might get raped by a Mexican busboy?
In the face of the awesome political catastrophe that has befallen the Republican Party in the form of George W. Bush, the response of its new leaders has not been to re-examine their perverted values, their vicious tactics or even their position on Bush's singularly idiotic and supremely characteristic policy mistake, the Iraq War. Instead, the party is closing its eyes and trying, Dorothy-like, to wish its way back to Kansas, back to the good old days of mean-spirited, blame-the-darkies politics of Newt Gingrich, a time when electoral blowouts could be won by offering frightened Americans a chance to pull a lever against gays, atheists and the collective rest of onrushing modern reality.
If this were ten years ago, when America was safely suckling on the Internet bubble and restricting its overseas dabbling to military exhibition games like Kosovo, this back-to-the-good-old-days bullshit would be mere vileness. But thanks to the GOP's excellent leader, Mr. Bush, America is no longer in any position to hide from reality. We are now fully and catastrophically engaged in reality. And reality is kicking our ass, in Iraq and Afghanistan and everywhere else in this world that hates us more and more with each and every passing day. The party's response is to blow that off, pretend it's not happening. Six years after 9/11, Bush's would-be replacements are still reading My Pet Goat. Their solution to the Iraq dilemma is to keep talking tough, as if our kids were not getting arms shot off from Basra to Tal Afar, as if bin Laden weren't still scoring record recruiting numbers in between bong hits on Al Jazeera.
Tancredo's idea for repairing America's relations with the Islamic Middle East is to threaten to nuke the innocent holy cities of Mecca and Medina. "That's the only thing I can think of that might deter somebody from doing what they otherwise might do," he said recently. At the tail end of his Newark appearance, as a means of trying to get him to say something, anything, about the Middle East, I ask Tancredo about that comment.
"That's for a different press conference," he grumbles, and slithers away.
Polls may be the devil's currency, near the top of the list of campaign evils, but in this case they tell the whole story. A recent CBS News poll indicates that thirty-one percent of Americans want to begin pulling at least some troops out of Iraq right away. Another thirty percent want to completely withdraw from Iraq, right now. That's nearly two-thirds of the country that wants to start bringing troops home.
Among young people, the numbers are even more striking. According to another poll, voters ages eighteen to twenty-nine now trust the Democrats more than the Republicans on every single issue surveyed, including the War on Terror. A mind-boggling sixty-six percent of young people are against giving the president's Iraq War plan a chance. Even among young Republicans, nearly four in ten favor an immediate withdrawal.
Anyone with an IQ above ten can see what these polls mean; what they should tell the Republican Party is that it simply cannot win a general election unless it changes its tune on Iraq. Instead, after two decades of Reagan-esque macho campaigning, decades in which Republican electoral success so spooked both the national media and the Democratic Party that it became axiomatic that only the toughest-talking and most warmongering politicians had even the slightest chance at the presidency, the Republicans find themselves cornered by their own conventional wisdom. Indeed, they are experiencing a sort of mirror image of the electoral/ideological malaise that has stricken their opponents in recent years.
Democratic candidates have generally refused to sell out on social issues like abortion and minority rights but have quickly surrendered on military spending, worker rights and deregulation in a desperate attempt to win swing voters and corporate contributions. Now, with doomed figures like Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain headlining this season's primary choices, the Republican Party offers the opposite: candidates willing to betray traditional party orthodoxies on abortion and gay rights but unwilling to budge on the toughness thing. After so many years of watching Democrats crucify themselves on the altar of missile envy -- saddling national tickets with pint-size fist-shakers like Joe Lieberman and turning the Kerry convention into a fatigue-clad orgy of Band of Brothers-style grunt-humping -- witnessing this sad procession of stay-the-course Republicans engaged in the political version of the Bataan Death March is a delicious comedy.
To wit: I checked in with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney outside Orlando, where he gave a speech to local Republicans before opening up the floor for his goofy-ass "Ask Mitt Anything" town-hall routine. Romney is an utter tool; he represents nothing so much as the very banality of our system of campaigning, a poll-chasing stuffed suit with a Max Headroom hairdo who will say (or won't say, for that matter) whatever the fuck it takes to get elected. The winner of the less-than-meaningless Iowa straw poll, he might end up the front-runner solely by virtue of the fact that he lacks the obvious hideous deformities of most of the rest of the field, in particular the human car wreck John McCain and the electoral incarnation of Tommy Lee Jones' acid-bath-surviving Two-Face character, Rudy Giuliani.
Romney's plan is clearly to wear a straight tie, call Hillary Clinton a commie (she's "out with Adam Smith and in with Karl Marx") and say almost nothing else. And it might work; that's what makes his stump shtick so interesting. In Orlando, he surfs through a nervous presentation that carefully avoids the Iraq thing, taking a shot at John Edwards' plan to create a $250 tax deduction for low-income Americans ("It wouldn't buy John Edwards a haircut," he cracks to pseudoapplause, trying not to touch his own perfectly sculpted hair helmet) and railing against those damned perverts the Democrats won't keep from raping our kids. "There are 29,000 convicted sex offenders on MySpace alone!" Romney cries. He's big on the whole protect-our-poor-innocent-children thing, blabbering about how we have to "clean up the water our kids are swimming in."
Not, of course, our kids in Iraq, who have some interesting water of their own to swim in lately, but our poor kids at home who have to brave the real dangers of the Internet, Hollywood movies and men holding hands. Nor, for that matter, Romney's own kids -- five sons who, rather than fighting in Iraq, he said recently, are "showing support for our nation" by working on their dad's campaign.
Of course, some of our kids are enemies themselves; one audience member picked by Romney's staff of breasty volunteer chicks to "Ask Mitt Anything" is a middle-aged white woman with a fine command of Rovian code words. Explaining that she is a teacher who works in a "socioeconomically low" area, she complains that her students are not motivated to get better test scores because, they tell her, "We don't have to work -- we'll get a check just like my mama does." Romney delivers a heartfelt solution to the lazy-Negro problem, saying you can predict which black kids will fail in school by seeing which ones have two parents come to parent-teacher night.
Romney is easy to make fun of, but he knows his business; in a world where bullshit rules the day, he does bullshit better than anyone. Hence, it is significant that this candidate -- who only a few months ago was gamely clutching his balls in a South Carolina debate and making macho pledges to "double Guantanamo" -- has suddenly abandoned his foreign-policy bluster. In Orlando, he doesn't touch Iraq until asked about it in Q&A -- and even then only mumbling something about how "the surge is, in my view, the right thing to be doing." Then it is quickly back to the usual stuff, commies and perverts and immigrants and lazy black people, the real sources of trouble in this country.
After the event, I actually find a few people who express muted enthusiasm for Romney's performance. Jim Broughton, an Orlando native who proudly describes himself as "to the right of Attila the Hun," is a Tancredo man who likes Romney as a second choice. He thinks we should "hurry up and end the war," but Iraq isn't his top concern. "Our culture and civilization, it's under . . . let's just say I don't want to learn Spanish," he says, frowning.
Another man at the event who appears to be mentally disturbed says he likes Romney because the candidate's slogan, "True Strength for America's Future," communicates to him that "the Space Center makes the United States a superpower." And a couple emerging after the speech say they now much prefer Romney to Giuliani; when I ask what they think the difference between the two is, they say they don't know, but that "Romney talks good."
There is a joke to be made here, but it's probably best left unmade. Suffice to say that this is not the year for any party to feel positive about relying on voters who are content with "talking good" or who worry more about dirty Mexicans than a bloody trillion-dollar war. But that is where the Republican Party is right now -- and there are signs that some of the candidates are finally collapsing under the weight of this painful equation.
Take rapidly decaying political rape victim John McCain, who has become the symbol of America's newfound impatience with the war. The one-time consensus front-runner was recently humiliated by a poll that shows him trailing Barack Obama among Iowa Republicans. (In fact, Obama outpolled McCain, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and U.S. senator/Christian lunatic Sam Brownback combined). Pilloried for his "principled" stand of refusing to give up on the war, McCain is now, hilariously, trying to reposition himself as a war critic. "I was the greatest critic of the initial four years," McCain claimed on CNN, failing to note that his "criticism" is that there are too few troops in Iraq.
McCain has taken the biggest beating in the press for his war stance, but really there is no meaningful difference on Iraq between any of the Republican candidates, who all waver along the same narrow spectrum of embarrassing self-delusion ("the surge is working") and blind idiocy ("taking the fight to the terrorists"). Brownback, a candidate of the Tancredo school who mostly avoids Iraq talk by yammering the loudest about dead fetuses, talks about needing a "political compromise" -- one that does not include withdrawal, that is. Rep. Duncan Hunter is trying to sell war-weary Americans on a really tall fence to keep rape-seeking Mexicans out of San Diego; his Iraq position is the same as everyone else's, except that he stresses the need for more training -- something, apparently, that the Bush administration hasn't thought to try in the past four years.
Huckabee offers the most novel explanation for why the candidates keep skirting the war. "The reason you don't hear a lot of Republicans bringing Iraq up in the front end of their stump speeches is that, frankly, we don't have to," he tells me at a fund-raiser in Great Falls, Virginia. "It seems to dominate so much of our interaction with the media, so therefore, that part's covered pretty well."
Wait, I think. Isn't that ... bullshit?
"So you're saying," I ask Huckabee, "that if the poll numbers were different, if people approved of the war, you still wouldn't be talking about it in your stump speeches?"
"I think," Huckabee says cheerfully, "that we would be talking about it if there was no other forum in which we could be asked about it."
Yep, that's bullshit, all right. Like the Republican candidates wouldn't all be ramming it down our throats if Bush had turned Baghdad into Geneva, instead of Kinshasa. Like we wouldn't be listening to Rudy Giuliani propose sedition charges against the Dixie Chicks and Michael Moore to roaring crowds in Manchester and Des Moines.
Which brings us to Giuliani. His position, while not substantively different from the others, is certainly interesting from a stylistic perspective. While the other candidates avoid Iraq in their stumpery, Rudy proudly plunges into the issue from the start of his speeches, snarling at crowds like a wild, bald beast. He unabashedly talks about the need to "stay on offense" and howls at the mere suggestion of a pullout, insisting that any withdrawal would be a "terrible mistake" and "worse than Vietnam."
In a testament to the astonishingly low standards of the American voting populace, it appears that this approach is succeeding on the level of "charisma." Giuliani leads his nearest Republican competitor by twenty points and would only lose to Hillary Clinton by six measly points if the election were held now.
Oh, wait, he would still lose, even to a supposed Marxist witch like Hillary Clinton. That's the best-case scenario for the Republican Party at the moment. First they screwed up, sending thousands of Americans to their deaths. Then they refused to apologize. And now they're going to pay.