in Kulturkampf

Republicans Double-Down, Democrats Disperse

House Speaker John Boehner really isn’t very good at his job. In case you haven’t heard, Mr. Tropic Thunder called President Obama “almost un-American” during a press conference Tuesday. (“Almost,” because you don’t nevah go full un-American. Especially when you have to call it an “honor and privilege” to introduce him later that evening.) This satisfies absolutely no one with any point of view on the president. Boehner was just firing the same ammo as the rest of the Republican Party, though, according to Greg Sargent:

Boehner’s comments today, and Romney’s recent comments, suggest Republicans are adopting a broad strategy of casting the Dem attacks on inequality as an assault on the essence of capitalism itself, as an attack on the underpinnings of American life and greatness.

Yet the polling all suggests that broad majorities of Americans simply don’t agree with this frame, and that it’s completely out of step with this political and economic moment, among middle of the road voters and even sizable blocs of Republicans.

Mitch Daniels’ SOTU response Tuesday night also hit on these themes of un-Americanness. It’s still a line we’ve heard before, though: the Republican Party hasn’t changed its tune since Obama was sworn in, and the effect of their rhetoric may be wearing off. For while polls show a thin majority will vote for a generic Republican, Obama leads all of the actual Republican contenders — especially Newt Gingrich — in head-to-head matchups.

Gingrich has blown plenty of dog whistles, exciting the knuckledraggers who turned out for Sarah Palin rallies in 2008, but he’s got a big problem with independents. The “liberal middle” does not care for him, or for anyone else on the debate stage with him. Despite their unpopularity, all four candidates claim to be conservatives. How can so many Americans despise them, but still call themselves “conservative”?

As I keep saying, this phenomenon has to be understood as a cultural conflict. More Americans call themselves “conservative” than liberal, but what that word means to them is less about politics than social identity. On most specific issues, today’s “swing voter” is actually liberal, not conservative — though they reject the L-word, as they’ve been taught to think of “liberal” as “left.

Moreover, today’s “conservative” politicians are often so radical that many “conservatives” do not recognize them. Take Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan, for instance. Despite its incredible unpopularity, he hasn’t given up on vouchers. Instead, he’s just renamed them “premium support”:

“We’re not backing off on the kinds of reforms that we’ve advocated, but we have to write it,” Paul said during a break at the GOP’s issues conference in Baltimore today. “We’ve done more to normalize the idea of premium support than anything at all. We’re confident that these are the right policies. There’s an emerging bipartisan consensus that’s occurring on doing premium support reform to Medicare is the best way to save Medicare.” (Emphasis mine)

Nothing about the Ryan plan has changed except the terminology. If reelected, Republicans will try yet again to push this nonsense through Congress, to the same effect. They will continue to spout the flagging rhetoric of fear and loathing. But it is just possible that Americans are no longer responsive to these tired old lines, and ready to hear the president instead:

This year, 82 percent of those who watched the (State of the Union) speech said they approve of the president’s plans for the economy, up from 53 percent who approved before the speech. Eighty percent said they approved of Mr. Obama’s plans for the deficit — in contrast to 45 percent before the speech. Eighty-three percent approved of Mr. Obama’s proposals regarding Afghanistan, which received only a 57 percent approval rating beforehand.

I kept saying in 2010 that Democrats had a tremendous opportunity if they could rally around a party platform and contrast themselves against the radicalism of tea-infused Republican politics. Of course, that didn’t happen, and despite good and improving prospects for a Democratic comeback I have yet to see the party unite on this front.

In a world where Democrats understand teamwork, Eric Cantor and John Boehner are the personified targets of a “Flip This House” campaign the way Pelosi was in 2010. In the real world, however, Paul Ryan can claim “bipartisan consensus” because one Democrat helped him formulate the latest iteration of his Medicare privatization plan.

Until Democrats can get on one page, they will not be able to take advantage of Republican weakness. This shouldn’t be hard, but in fact it’s the hardest thing for Democrats to do.

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