Congressional Republicans are marginally more popular and significantly less contagious than the swine flu. Even conservatives are keeping their distance. House leader John Boehner's perpetual tan has become a presidential punch line. Senate leader Mitch Dr. No McConnell is known only for obstruction. Ideologues like Rush rush to fill the leadership vacuum, seeking to purge the party of any lingering moderates. It's gotten so bad that neo-con Bill Kristol suggests that leading presidential candidates for 2012 might well be the oft disgraced Newt Gingrich and..gulp.. Darth Cheney himself.
Cheney and Gingrich are worth paying attention to - not as presidential contenders but as very sophisticated conservative political combatants. Both are brass knuckled politicians, steeped in the Lee Atwater school of anything goes wedge politics. And both are laying down clear markers for the debate to come.
Cheney's torture campaign managed to spook querulous Democrats about Guantanamo and force Obama into the lists to respond to him. Cheney's speeches were less analysis than rant, but they told a clear story:
America is at war. Evil enemies lurk in dark corners. After 911, the Bush administration took the steps necessary - some of them harsh, some unspeakable, but all necessary - to keep us safe. Now Obama is dismantling vital elements in that protection, emboldening our enemies, confusing our friends, and weakening our defenses.
In Cheney's words, "The administration seems to pride itself on searching for some kind of middle ground in policies addressing terrorism... But in the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground, and half-measures keep you half exposed...There is never a good time to compromise when the lives and safety of the American people are in the balance."
Cheney is betting on failure. He has set Obama up to take the rap if there is another terrorist strike in America, or if things go badly in Iraq or Afghanistan. He's essentially advising Republicans to forget the moderating steps of the Bush second term, and to draw a bright line in assailing any retreat, any compromise, any turn to legal or constitutional niceties.
Gingrich pursues the same strategy on the economy, only he's willing to throw Bush under the bus. In his speech before the Conservative Political Action Convention, he lacerated Obama for ushering in the "European socialist" takeover of America's economy. At same time, he tied Obama to Bush in what he calls "a Bush-Obama big spending program that was bipartisan in its nature. Last year the Bush Obama plan had a 180 billion stimulus package in the spring which failed. It came back with a 345 billion housing package in the summer which failed. It then had a 700 billion Wall Street bailout in October which failed. It had a 4 trillion dollar Federal Reserve guaranty which failed. The Bush-Obama plan was continued. We didn't get real change. ..We got big spending under Bush, now we have big spending under Obama, and so we have two new failures."
Gingrich recycles the old standards of the Reagan conservative mantra to describe the choice facing the country:
"They have shared openly and honestly with us their vision of higher taxes, bigger government, more bureaucracy, greater corruption, more political power by people unworthy of doing it, and a policy which will kill jobs, cripple the economy, trap children in schools that are disasters and weaken America's future. They have every right to have that vision and we have every right to go to the polls and defeat it.
We should have as a goal 435 campaigns in this country of people dedicated to representative government, to lower taxes, to less power in Washington and to taking back from the bureaucracy the power it can't possibly use over the American economy."
In Gingrich's speeches, there is very little on how we got into the mess we are in. Rather the focus is on the failure to get the economy going and the choice going forward.
Again, Gringrich is betting on failure. If, as is likely, unemployment keeps rising over the next year, foreclosures continue, any recovery is halting at best, Gingrich's argument is designed to blame Obama rather than the mess that conservatives left him.
Democrats must engage on this level of analysis. That is why the mantra of not "litigating the past" is foolish. Democrats have to tell clearly the story of how we got into the hole we are in -- both abroad and at home.
Obama is the best at this. His response to Cheney was compelling, but circumscribed:
Unfortunately, faced with an uncertain threat, our government made a series of hasty decisions. I believe that many of these decisions were motivated by a sincere desire to protect the American people. But I also believe that all too often our government made decisions based on fear rather than foresight; that all too often our government trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions. Instead of strategically applying our power and our principles, too often we set those principles aside as luxuries that we could no longer afford. And during this season of fear, too many of us -- Democrats and Republicans, politicians, journalists, and citizens -- fell silent.
...I categorically reject the assertion that these [waterboarding and other tortures] are the most effective means of interrogation. What's more, they undermine the rule of law. They alienate us in the world. They serve as a recruitment tool for terrorists, and increase the will of our enemies to fight us, while decreasing the will of others to work with America. They risk the lives of our troops by making it less likely that others will surrender to them in battle, and more likely that Americans will be mistreated if they are captured. In short, they did not advance our war and counterterrorism efforts -- they undermined them, and that is why I ended them once and for all.
On the economy, Obama has evoked the language of biblical parable in contrasting the economy built on sand with that build on rock. The economy built on sand, begun under Reagan, with top end tax cuts, deregulation, the cult of the CEO, the myth that markets would police themselves that led to a frenzy of speculation, greed, corruption and the placing of bigger and bigger bets with more and more borrowed money until that economy collapsed on its own excess.
"We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand. We must build our house upon a rock. We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity - a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest; where we consume less at home and send more exports abroad. "
It's easy to scoff at Gingrich and mock Cheney. Voters weren't buying the conservative mantra when McCain and Joe the Plumber trotted it out in the campaign. But don't misunderestimate the right. There is no question that conservatives will learn the narratives put out by Cheney and Gingrich. The conservative movement excels at teaching their choir the lines of the hymnal. Over time, they will work hard to make Obama own the economic mess they left behind, and decry signs of weakness abroad.
It is vital that the real story be told - and not just by the president, but by neighbors to neighbors, citizen to citizen. The story on how conservative policies and follies led us into the hole we are in - and now are obstructing the efforts to get us out.