What I Saw at the Conservative Devolution
The CPAC conference confirmed that the Republican Party has no interest in facts.
"People like polls," Halberg added during the presentation. But "people love to hear stories"--whether they match the statistics or not. Of course, the personal anecdote (from Americans without health care, or serving in Iraq) is in every politician's rhetorical toolbox. But it was Sen. John McCain's campaign that took this idea to the extreme--daring to substitute "Joe the Plumber" for real economic policies.
KEEPING IT SIMPLE
To better approach Bush's "mission accomplished" example, Halberg encouraged the audience to "use 7th-grade grammar" and "get rid of acronyms." This made sense at a conference where dropping buzzwords like "liberty" and "9/11" elicited greater applause than a lone libertarian critique of the Patriot Act. But to those TV watchers who crave information on the Troubled Asset Relief Program (known as TARP) that bailed out the banks, or the counterinsurgency techniques (known as COIN) that have been crucial to military breakthroughs in Iraq and Afghanistan: Abandon hope.
Now, there are plenty of left-wing blowhards to go around, and a number of very smart conservatives who parse COIN and TARP every day. What's more, the tendency to favor "likeability" over credibility informs Obama's road to the White House as much as it does the disastrous Bush presidency. But the dumbing down of discourse has also been a highly effective diversion for the conservatives stuck with a discredited foreign and domestic policy.
Perhaps the greatest testament to the new norm was CPAC's keynote speech, delivered by the offbeat, wildly popular Fox News host Glenn Beck. Beck, a beneficiary of the age of theater begun by Ronald Reagan and perfected by Bush, Obama, Stephen Colbert and even Sarah Palin, has likewise mastered the art of everyman nastiness pioneered by last year's CPAC keynoter, Rush Limbaugh.
Leave aside that the conservative movement relies on entertainers, rather than experts, for their main attractions. Beck's hour-long rant actually put many of Halberg's counsels into practice. On likeability, he scored high marks: "I'm sorry," he apologized at one point, touching his heart. "I don't use a teleprompter--I just speak from here." Certainly, he was entertaining as well as unspecific. Beck mentioned "vomit" more times than he mentioned, say, monetary policy. As for stories, he told a lot, freely creating his own reality before the adoring crowd. Noting that small businesses are "struggling to save jobs," he used his trademark blackboard to chalk statistics and numbers geared at explaining that "we are spending more than we've ever spent before, and it doesn't work."
IGNORANCE IS BLISS
As then-candidate Obama said near the close of his 2008 campaign for the White House: "It's like these guys take pride in being ignorant." The president was responding to Republican jeers about his suggestion that Americans inflate their tires to save money on gas--but it remains an apt rebuttal today. The White House recently released details of special legislation designed to help small business owners, who will have access to a $30 billion lending fund, receive a $5,000 tax credit for hiring new workers this year--and be exempted from the capital gains taxes conservatives often decry. Nevertheless, Beck dog-whistled to the raptured, overwhelmingly white audience about "the kinds of people nobody is even noticing anymore."
It may not be Beck's job to think policy--or even tell the truth. But with his help, the Republican Party (not officially affiliated with CPAC) seems to encourage and exploit the diminishing national attention span-producing not just Beck, but junior flacks like Jason Mattera, climate change-denying lobbyists turned "analysts" and so-called "journalists" who practice no such thing. It also forces mild-mannered moderates like Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty to pander openly via misogynistic jokes about Tiger Woods' wife. And it degrades everyone's understanding of what on earth is going on in America.
George Packer of the New Yorker recently recalled a conversation he had with David Frum, a Republican moderate who is trying to create a space for intelligent conservative policy discussion. Frum's worry, way back in 2008, was that "the beaten party believes it just has to say it louder." What I saw at CPAC suggests Republicans are in full voice.
Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.