Watching the various Republican responses — official and otherwise — to President Obama’s State of the Union address was a bit like watching a right-wing remake of The Three Faces of Eve, the 1957 classic about a woman who suffered from "multiple personality disorder," for which Joanne Woodward won an Academy Award. In fact, Woodward was the first actress to take home the Best Actress Oscar for portraying three different personalities.
In an attempt to win big political prizes in 2014, 2016 and beyond, the GOP is portraying itself as three different parties. But behind what looks like an identity crisis is the same old party.
By my count, there were at least three Republican responses — two official, one unofficial — to the State of the Union address, representing three different faces of the same old GOP: the “Re-Branded” Republican party, the tea party, and the “alienated white men.”
Re-Branded or Re-Run?
The “re-branded” GOP was represented by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), whom Time magazine dubbed “The Republican Savior," and Republicans selected to deliver the official GOP response to the State of the Union. In the face of defeat and demographic realities of the 2012 election, the party of “old, white people” chose a fresh, young, brown face to represent the party in the SOTU response.
Actually, Rubio is more like the “Re-Branded GOP version 2.0.” Still stinging from defeat in the 2008 presidential election, Republican’s pulled a similar move in choosing Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal to deliver the Republican response to Obama’s first SOTU in 2009. If Michael Steele’s leadership of the RNC counts, then perhaps Rubio’s elevation to GOP messiah represents version 3.0 of the “Re-Branded” GOP.
While Rubio’s speech had its iconic moment, it wasn’t as widely panned as Jindal’s SOTU response, or as abysmal as Michael Steele tenure as RNC chair. But the content of Rubio’s speech hardly represented anything “new” from the GOP. It was the same old rhetoric, and after Jindal and Steele, even hearing it from a non-white male didn’t present a new direction for the GOP so much as it the same old Republican cynicism in a different wrapper. As Dave pointed out, from an economic standpoint Rubio’s speech was a re-run of the same old wrongheaded Republican economic ideas. (Incredibly, Rubio even trotted out the long debunked claim that “the government caused the housing crisis.)
The speech failed in another very important way: Rubio’s SOTU reesponse ignored the concerns of the very voters the GOP needs if it’s to have a hope of escaping electoral oblivion in the future, and instead simply told the same old story Republicans have been telling for decades.
In Rubio’s depiction, America is a wondrous place where capitalism allows everyone to get ahead, and the only major external obstacle to upward mobility is an overbearing federal government. “America,” he said, “is exceptional because we believe that every life, at every stage, is precious, and that everyone everywhere has a God-given right to go as far as their talents and hard work will take them.”
Obama serves up this Hallmark-card patriotism too, but he also signals, in ways that many nonwhite, non-Anglo, nonstraight Americans instinctively understand, that America often doesn’t act as if “every life” is equally “precious.” When Obama said early in his speech that “it is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country—the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love,” he was acknowledging that state-sponsored bigotry still prevents millions of gay and lesbian Americans from “getting ahead” because of who they love.
…Republicans believe they are the party of aspiration, of the all-American yearning to get ahead. And they believe, rightly, that Latinos, African-Americans, women, and gays share that yearning. What they often ignore is the way America’s deep traditions of bigotry still stifle those aspirations, whether by hindering African-Americans’ access to the voting booth, exploiting and brutalizing illegal Mexican immigrants, preventing gays and lesbians from marrying, or denying female workers equal pay.
Republicans need not agree with every remedy Obama offers for these forms of injustice, but they must at least acknowledge them when telling America’s story. Otherwise, at some level, they will continue to ignore the Americans they wish to court. Which is exactly what Marco Rubio did last night. If Rubio ignored those issues last night, it may be because to do otherwise would call attention to his own party’s embarrassing antics; like holding up the Violence Against Women Act again, with objections that the original bill was “unfair to men,” and too kind to Native American women and lesbians. When the Senate finally voted to reauthorize VAWA, Rubio was among the 22 Republican men who voted “No."
Here’s a hint to Rubio and the Republicans: siding with abusers isn’t going to win over women voters. If anything, it digs the GOP into an even deeper hole with women voters. And when you’re also deep in a hole with women voters, gay voters, African American voters, Latino voters, and Asian American voters, ignoring their concerns underscores the fact that your talk doesn’t match your walk.
The voters in the diverse coalition that rewarded president Obama with reelection, and Democrats with gains in the Senate and the House, did not vote as they did because of “bribes” or “gifts.” They made judgements based on how government had helped them, and thus would help others, because they believed that’s what government should be about “addressing the needs and desires of people.”
If Republicans think that these groups were merely put off by your “tone,” you guys are fooling yourselves even more than you want to fool voters. Your “tone” in this election only confirmed what women, youth, and minority voters suspected all along. Without a record of even attempting to address their concerns through policies that jibe with your principles, these voters will see right through you.
Your walk won’t match your talk, and it will show. Voters will know that you’re still not that into them, and they won’t be remotely into you.
Bottom line: if the GOP’s task is the make their message understandable (and appealing) to minority voters, Rubio — the party’s latest “spokesman of a different color” — didn’t merely fail to speak to the “Multi-American” coalition that defeated the GOP in 2012. He didn’t even try.
Tempest in the Tea Party
There were two “offical” Republican responses to the SOTU. Not only did Sen. Marco Rubio deliver the Republican response, but Sen. Rand Paul (R, TN) delivered the tea party response. This wasn’t the first time the GOP delivered two responses to the SOTU. Michelle Bachmann famously delivered the tea party response to the 2011 SOTU, but it turned out she wasn’t talking to most of America. (Bachmann either unintentionally or “unintentionally on-purpose” spoke directly to the camera for the Tea Party Express video feed.)
Again, as Dave pointed out, when it comes to economic content, Paul’s speech was essentially the same deficit hysterics and government-bashing that the GOP has been serving up for a while now. What’s significant about Paul’s address is the split it represents in the Republican party.
An alien who landed somewhere in the United States Tuesday night might be forgiven for assuming that ours is a three-party system. But it’s close to the truth that, despite Sen. Paul’s protestations that his speech was “not necessarily divisive,” the GOP is really a two-party party. Paul’s speech serves as a reminder that the tea party “movement” the Koch Brothers and big tobacco created, is at the center of what appears to be a civil war within the GOP.
And apparently, Ronald Reagan’s “11th Commandment” is among the first casualties of GOP infighting. Smarting over the loss of up to five Senate seats, establishment Republicans like Karl Rove and former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour are pinning the blame squarely on the tea party, and taking steps to quash candidates like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdodock in 2014 and 2016.
Rove recently organized major Republican donors under the monicker “Conservative Victory Project," for the express purposes of recruiting candidates an protecting GOP incumbents from tea party challengers. Barbour is calling on donors to stop giving to organizations like the Club For Growth, that attack incumbent Republicans.
In an interview with National Review Online on Tuesday, Barbour … acknowledged his growing frustration with conservative organizations that target Republicans in primaries.
“We kicked away four or five Senate seats in the last two cycles by nominating candidates who did not have the best chance to win,” he says. “We ought to talk to Republican donors now, in the off-season before the primaries, and discourage them from donating to organizations that will attack good Republicans.”
“Republican groups like the Club for Growth should stop spending money to defeat Republicans,” he adds. “Politics can’t be about purity. Unity wins in politics, purity loses.”
It doesn’t get any prettier on the tea party side of the battle lines. In fact, it’s getting downright nasty. Liberals are not alone in hating Karl Rove anymore. No less than Donald Trump has declared Rove a “loser” and tea partiers of all stripes are declaring war.
“Because of the bad results of the 2012 cycle, I kind of feel like we’re in a state of gang warfare,” Matt Kibbe, the president of FreedomWorks, a grassroots advocacy group aligned with the Tea Party movement, told MSNBC.com, adding: “The establishment is circling the wagons, and they’re trying to protect their own.”
Kibbe argued that the the energy in today’s GOP comes from the very Tea Party-backed candidates, like Rand Paul and Mike Lee, that Rove has opposed in the past. “What Rove is proposing is a recipe for failure,” he said.
Ben Shapiro, an editor at Breitbart News, accused Rove of “declaring war on the Tea Party.”
Influential conservative blogger Michelle Malkin agreed. “This is war,” she wrote, adding: “Who needs Obama and his Team Chicago to destroy the Tea Party when you’ve got Rove and his big government band of elites?”
Erick Erickson, the influential founder of Redstate.com and a long-time champion of the Tea Party, had a similar take. Rove’s goal, Erickson wrote, is to “crush conservatives, destroy the Tea Party, and put a bunch of squishes in Republican leadership positions.”
That Karl Rove could get the time of day from big GOP donors after blowing $300 million on the 2012 elections and ending up with nothing to show for it is, if nothing else, a testament to what remains of the power of the “Turd Blossom." But like Frankenstein’s fatal, futile pursuit of the monster he created, targeting the tea party could backfire, strengthen resolve on far right, and finally finish off Karl Rove. (Three words: Koch Brothers’ Money.)
The Alienated White Male
That brings me to Ted Nugent. While Democrats were inviting victims of gun-violence to be their guests at the SOTU, Rep. Steve Stockman (R, TX) invited a washed-up rocker, reality television star, prolific tweeter, and Obama hater Ted Nugent to be his personal guest.
Ted Nugent. This is a guy who once wielded two rifles on stage and basically threatened to kill Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. At an NRA conference in St. Louis, Nugent predicted “If Barack Obama becomes the president in November, again, I will either be dead or in jail by this time next year.” That remark earned Nugent a visit from the Secret Service. This is the “articulate spokesperson” Stock man invited to the SOTU to “give a balance” to the president’s remarks.
“He’s a very articulate spokesman,” Stockman told CNN. “I’m excited to have him. I think he gives a balance to what’s being said tonight at the White House. And it will be a balance. The president gives his views and his opinions. And we live in a free country where other people get to speak their opinion.”
Stockman’s characterization of an “articulate” Nugent capable of “balance” might raise eyebrows among the rocker’s critics. Nugent’s presence at the speech struck some as odd, especially considering his claim last April that he would be “dead or in jail” in a year if Obama was elected to a second term. While that remark eventually earned Nugent a visit from the Secret Service, it was just part of a string of caustic and violent comments Nugent has made toward Democrats he disagrees with.
Nugent famously ranted in 2007: “Obama, he’s a piece of shit. I told him to suck on my machine gun. … Hey Hillary, you might want to ride one of these into the sunset, you worthless bitch.”
But considering Stockman’s own history of controversy, perhaps Nugent serves as an apt accomplice for the congressman as they prepare to take on what the rocker has called the State of the Union “media orgy.”
What was more surprising than Nugent’s presence at the SOTU, given his history of outrageous statements, was his apparent silence during the president’s address. There were no spontaneous outbursts from Nugent, like Rep. Joe Wilson’ s “You lie!” If Nugents remarks to reporters after the speech are to be believed, the only reason he was so well behaved during the president’s speech is because he didn’t hear most of it.
As reporters found their seats in the House press gallery, they shared a question: Where was Ted Nugent? The 64-year old rock star, who last cracked the charts with 1980’s “Wango Tango,” had been invited to the State of the Union as a guest of Texas Rep. Steve Stockman. Thirty-odd Democrats had invited the families of gun violence victims to sit for the speech, but they were never famous. Not even in 1980.
Buzzfeed’s D.C. editor John Stanton asked a peer to help him find a “tall, crazy-looking” white guy. When President Obama entered the chamber, Nugent stood up, and reporters finally saw him. He spent the entire speech, 13 typed pages, in various stages of physical agony. At the emotional apex of the night, when the president counted off victims who “deserve a vote,” Nugent sat with his arms crossed.
“My favorite part was when I couldn’t hear clearly,” said Nugent to reporters after the speech. “Then I didn’t get angry.”
The image of the “angry black man” still purveyed by sensationalists such as Ann Coulter and Dinesh D’Souza is anachronistic today, when blacks and even Muslims, the most conspicuous of “outsider” groups, profess optimism about America and their place in it. A politics of frustration and rage remains, but it is most evident within the GOP’s dwindling base—its insurgents and anti-government crusaders, its “middle-aged white guys.” They now form the party’s one solid bloc, its agitated concurrent voice, struggling not only against the facts of demography, but also with the country’s developing ideas of democracy and governance.
Behind the “politics of frustration” is fueled by what call the “Rage of an Unprivileged Class” — rage at the apparently overthrow of what Bill O’Reilly, in an interview with then GOP presidential candidate John McCain, called “the white, Christian male power structure.” (“Of which I’m a part and you’re a part,” O’Reilly went on to add in his conversation with McCain.)
A Romney victory and inauguration would have represented a return to the previously established order. It would have been a restoration of primacy.
From Republican establishment to GOP leadership, all the way down to the basest of the base, Obama’s 2008 victory represented the loss of primacy, defined above as “the fact of being primary, preeminent, or more important.” The popularity of his candidacy alone represented a particular threat to the primacy of the GOP establishment, and the primacy-by-association of the GOP’s predominantly white base. During the 2008 election, Republican leadership played on both the economic anxieties racial anxieties of its base, and the result was that all the fear and anger that had been bubbling just below the surface threatened to boil over.
… In 2008, many the GOP’s overwhelmingly white, heavily southern, predominantly Christian believed their voices had not been heard. It was inconceivable that one such as Barack Obama could have won the presidency without them. It wasn’t supposed to happen, so it must have been the product of conspiracy that went back perhaps all the way to the day Barack Obama was born, and sustained long enough for ACORN to steal the White House for Obama and steal the country from “Real Americans.”
… That America would be restored to its rightful place with the 2012 election, and the election of Barack Obama would be fluke; an historic moment, but a fluke nonetheless. Everything would go back to “normal” and America would come to terms with its well-intentioned “mistake in electing Barack Obama. One subtly racist Romney/Ryan television spot even seemed to give the country a rhetorical “pat on the back,” and to say — as Bill Maher paraphrased it — “You tried. He tried. Black people are lovely, but this president-ing thing really isn’t for them.”
The problem for Republicans is that the majority of American voters decided that they wanted Barack Obama to continue doing “this president-ing thing” for four more years. That majority is decidedly more progressive on social and economic issues than Republican base of “old white people.” This new majority is likely to become more solidly progressive. Younger voters are part of the “Obama majority” and an increasingly important demographic. They’re also very progressive and on their way to mainstreaming their progressive views.
Who better to “articulate” that rage than a man with a history of inflammatory comments, who once declared “You know what I’m on top of? I’m on top of a real America with working hard, playing hard, white motherfucking shit kickers, who are independent and get up in the morning,” and called Obama supporters “subhuman varmints” to articulate that rage?
But while Nugent predictably slammed the SOTU, what’s truly surprising is that Nugent saved most of his venom for the Republican establishment.
As Slate’s perceptive Dave Weigel noted Tuesday, “If Nugent joined the Republican caucus, he wouldn’t even be its most conservative member.”
But here’s what we found particularly interesting: Nugent was pretty hard on the Republican Party. In some ways his rhetoric about the GOP was more brutal than his comments on the SOTU.
In an interview with the conservative Breitbart.com website, Nugent said the Republican establishment does not fight back against Obama “because somehow they have lost their [deleted].”
We’re a family blog – if you want to see what body part he was talking about, look at the source. It was, um, original.
Nugent told Breitbart that the GOP is more concerned with looking pretty than winning. They should not back off, not stop to allow the other side to talk, not acquiesce. They should escalate, he said.
At the end of The Three Faces of Eve, Joanne Woodward’s character manages to integrate her fragmented personalities into a final, authentic identity. That’s pretty much what happens when Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly known as “multiple personality disorder”) is succesfully treated today. By the end of the movie “Eve White” and “Eve Black” cease to exist and are finally unified into Eve’s “real” identity — Jane, who marries, reunites with her daughter and lives happily ever after.
Does the GOP have a hope of a such happy ending? That depends. Which of “The Three Faces of the GOP” is the real GOP? Rubio’s ascendancy and Rove’s scheming against the tea party suggest that Nugent and the tea partiers are closer to the “authentic” face of the Republican party. They represent the GOP base and the conservative agenda that the party hopes to disguise by “looking pretty” and sounding nicer.
It’s becoming increasingly obvious that the most authentic face of the GOP is the one that’s least attractive to the majority of voters, and least likely to be easily reconciled or integrated with the face that the GOP establishment wants to present. That doesn’t add up to a happy ending for the GOP.
Online Producer, Campaign for America’s Future
Terrance Heath previously worked as a Blogging and Social Media Consultant for several organizations, after serving as Blogmaster for EchoDitto, Inc. He stumbled into blogging and social media after starting his own blog, The Republic of T. He has worked as an activist on LGBT equality and HIV/AIDS issues with the Human Rights Campaign and the National Minority AIDS Council.
This piece first appeared on the Campaign for America’s Future blog, OurFuture.