Sarah Palin sets the tone for a narrow, spiteful corner of American politics. That corner was occupied by the Tea Party convention last week in Nashville, where Palin served up a strong, carefully-brewed, neo-con-written speech featuring a blend of slurs steeped in personal animus toward Barack Obama.
There were lies of a general nature, including the palm-reading Palin’s suggestion that the President is so out of his depth, so stupid — at least that’s what the cheering crowd heard — that he can’t function without a teleprompter. And the contradictory, but equally bogus, claim that Obama is a feeble egghead — appealing to an old prejudice against intellectuals — who’s not up to the job. “We need a commander-in-chief,” Palin said, “not a law professor.”
And there were specific lies. Obama is, in Palin’s telling, soft on terrorism. Why, he never uses the word “war” when referring to it.
That’s a lie.
Obama “apologizes” for “our men and women in uniform.” She never mentioned the President’s name, but her malevolent meaning was clear.
That’s another lie.
The stimulus didn’t create “one job.”
There’s one more.
With jobs lagging recovery, Palin reveled in the frustrations of the moment: “How is that hopey-changey stuff working out for you?” she sneered.
With her “oh gosh” peddling of hate, Palin has hit a new low not only in her rhetoric but in The Washington Post/ABC poll. Seventy percent of Americans now view her as unqualified to be President. Still, I strongly favor her nomination; she’s a sure loser. (I know, some Democrats once said that about Ronald Reagan. But to compare her with him is to validate Marx’s observation that history repeats itself as farce.)
Although Palin is the nominee Republican strategists fear most — they, too, are convinced she would sink the party — I believe that in at least once sense she’s eminently qualified to be the Republican standard bearer. Bathed in the klieg lights of a media that cannot resist her performance art, she perfectly expresses the low standards to which the Republicans have now repaired: When “no” isn’t enough, just lie and smear the other side. Palin was snarky, snide and in a perverse way entertaining in her Tea Party keynote last Saturday. But she just kicked off the week. The Republican march of deception and personal destruction plowed right through the paralyzing snowdrifts in Washington.
The GOP twisted the truth and portrayed the Administration as naïve or worse in dealing with terrorism because the underwear bomber had been read his Miranda rights. It then emerged that Republicans on the Intelligence Committees had been told on Christmas Day that he was in FBI custody; they were shocked, shocked to find out that this meant a Miranda warning — under rules established by the Bush Administration — rules which they certainly ought to know.
National Security Council official John Brennan revealed the Christmas Day conversation just as it also emerged that the suspect was talking and providing valuable information; apparently American justice is working better than water boarding. Deprived of their concocted talking point, Republicans battered Brennan personally.
In the Republican description of him, Brennan was transformed into “a White House staffer” — as if Brennan were some political operative from Chicago parachuted into one of the most sensitive positions in government. The crotchety and befuddled Republican Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri blustered that Brennan was a partisan who should resign. In reality, he is a career CIA official, a former deputy to the director of the CIA. The first head of the National Counterterrorism Center — under Bush, not Obama — Brennan has a lifetime record of serving country, not party. He’s almost certainly done more to protect national security than the politicians who tore at his reputation in the past week.
Brennan made the obvious, essential point that playing politics with security could weaken America in combating terrorism. But Republicans didn’t seem to care. Palin lied, Bond bloviated and House GOP intelligence honcho Pete Hoekstra chimed in with the rest of the GOP chorus. Their attempted shredding of Brennan was a latter day version of Joe McCarthy’s sleazy attack on Secretary of State George Marshall as a disloyal American. (Note to Palin: Marshall was the General who commanded all U.S. forces in World War II, which was . . . oh, never mind.)
One of the most egregious lies was peddled by Newt Gingrich. An intermittently serious figure and occasional buffoon, Gingrich this time plunged off the cliff when it was pointed out to him that the Bush Administration had Mirandized shoe-bomber Richard Reid. Gingrich, without missing a beat, glibly shot back that Reid was an American citizen. He wasn’t and isn’t, although he is an American prisoner for life in a supermax fortress in Colorado. Gingrich’s response was also beside the point; the Constitution applies even to foreign nationals arrested in the U.S. — which is why the Bush Administration, not exactly solicitous of the Bill of Rights, proceeded as it did.
The lie machine churns on — and not just in the area of national security, where Republicans calculate that they have a precast advantage. In reaction to the President’s call for a bipartisan discussion on health care, Republican Congressional leaders Mitch McConnell and John Boehner said they were all for reform — just junk the bill that’s already written and start over again. It’s the insurance industry’s dream — and a transparent deception. What the Republicans offer is a series of minor measures, including their favorite hobbyhorse, a crackdown on malpractice lawsuits. In sum, they might be willing to cover an additional three or four million people while costs and premiums continue to soar out of control.
In the face of persistent Republican obstruction, now surrounded by a bodyguard of lies, impatient progressives complain that the President is naively clinging to bipartisanship. In the process, however, he’s also making it increasingly plain that the other side refuses to put country ahead of party. And in the end, the test is not how Obama tries, but whether he succeeds in passing health reform.
Then, as the economy improves and Americans see real job creation, the next lie will surface — that this President had nothing to do with the turnaround; it was bound to happen anyway. But in the long term, the party that lied us into the Iraq War won’t be able to lie its way to victory. Democrats are in a race against the economic clock in 2010, but it’s a near-certainty that the march of prosperity will outpace the march of deception by 2012.
David Frum is right that at some point, the GOP will have to rethink itself and imagine something bigger than the nihilistic tactics of the moment. Obama’s right to be calm and hold his course. It’s how he got to the White House—and it’s how he will find a path, for himself and America, through this season of discontent. Palin, too, may yet be proved right – at least on one count. On election night 2008, she had intended to salute the new President’s “greatness.” It was a graceful note. But it was never delivered.