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GOP Code Confusion | The Nation

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Leslie Savan

Politics, media and the politics of media.

GOP Code Confusion

As we get closer to the general election race, the Republican Party is descending into ever deeper confusion over its rhetorical codes and when and how to use them.

This is more than just an awkward pivot from pitching to the base to focusing on the general electorate. It’s a direct result of decades of Republicans fashioning their language to obscure what they really mean—like asserting that “cutting taxes will raise revenues” when the real idea is to shift the tax burden from the rich to the poor. The GOP is so distracted by its multiplicity of phony attack lines that it’s begun to confuse itself.

We’ve all seen how, during the primary debates, the Republican candidates were forced to acquiesce to the notion that, say, booing a soldier on duty in Iraq or shouting down the Golden Rule are, respectively, the patriotic and Christian things to do. But when Perry and Gingrich started attacking Romney from the left as a job-destroying vulture capitalist, they started to seriously step on their own neckties.

And the reason they did is pretty simple: Reactionary movements demand a certain ability to flip meaning around in their members’ minds in order to argue with opponents who, like Obama, are (only too) willing to compromise. However, this technique has come to so dominate the GOP policy discussion that it’s become a universal reflex. Rick and Newt were simply extending the manufacture of false outrage to Mitt, their opponent du jour; tripping over their own laissez-faire principles along the way was secondary to going on the attack.

The mechanistic, automatic opposition to Democrats has similarly made most Republicans live in such a perpetual Opposite Day that they’ve lost the thread of their own arguments--and that means they’re losing control of the political narrative. Consider the mixed messages of just the past week:

Romney on Leno

Romney was attacking—no defending—no attacking—Robamneycare:

LENO: So you would make the law stand for children and people with pre-existing conditions?

ROMNEY: People with pre-existing conditions—as long as they’ve been insured before—they’re going to continue to have insurance.

LENO: Suppose they were never insured?

ROMNEY: Well, if they're 45 years old, and they show up, and they say, 'I want insurance because I've got a heart disease,' it's like, 'Hey guys, we can’t play the game like that.' You’ve got to get insurance when you’re well, and if you get ill, then you’re going to be covered.

LENO: I know guys at work in the auto industry, and they're just not covered ... They’ve just never been able to get insurance. And then they get to be 30, 35 and were never able to get insurance before. Now they have it. That seems like a good thing.

ROMNEY: We'll look at a circumstance where someone was ill and hasn't been insured so far. But people who have had the chance to be insured—if you’re working in an auto business, for instance, the companies carry insurance; they insure all their employees—you look at the circumstances that exist. But people who have done their best to get insured are going to be able to be covered. But you don’t want everyone saying, 'I'm going to sit back until I get sick and then go buy insurance.' That doesn’t make sense. But you have to find rules that get people in that are playing by the rules.

There’s one code for the primaries: You must be a severe conservative who says, “Hey guys, we can’t play the game like that.” Then there’s another code for the general election, when you must pose as the protective father who says, “People with pre-existing conditions [are]… going to continue to have insurance.” Romney just isn’t good enough at decodification to make the transition smoothly, winding up with one of his usual lip-smashes hinting that only the good people, the deserving people, will be taken care of.

Self-contradictions are like flypaper for Romney—he can’t keep himself from touching them, and he looks ridiculous waving his arms in the air trying to get them off. He understands this, too, and when he feels a tactical need to display his command of the process he’ll cheerfully admit it. “One of the things I found in a short campaign against Ted Kennedy was that when I said, for instance, that I wanted to eliminate the Department of Education, that was used to suggest I don’t care about education,” he told The Weekly Standard this week. “I anticipate that there will be departments and agencies that will either be eliminated or combined with other agencies…but I’m not going to give you a list right now.”

Which is painfully close to saying, “If I tell you what I’m planning to do, I won’t get elected.” (Note to Romney campaign: Shake Etch A Sketch here.)

Chamber of Commerce: Oops

Code reading is always a matter of interpretation, as the Chamber of Commerce has found out, according to a front-page piece, “Business Bets on the G.O.P. May Be Backfiring,” by Jonathan Weisman in Wednesday’s New York Times. Weisman points out that the Chamber’s campaign contributions to Republican candidates in 2010 were a bad case of “be careful what you wish for.” The Tea Party’s idea of smaller government—that you don’t spend what you don’t have, including all government expenditures without a direct funding stream attached—has run afoul of the Chamber’s idea, which might be better put as “you should spend on us but not on them.”

Efforts to shut down the Export-Import Bank and the refusal to fund the annual highway bill (traditionally a universally popular piece of pork) for more than three months at a stretch are actually hurting the big-business donors to the Chamber quite a bit. But their protests seem to have as little impact on the ideology of Tea Partiers as the evidence that you can’t fight two overseas wars and cut taxes at the same time without creating record-setting deficits. As Barney Keller, spokeman for the anti-spending, tax-killing Club for Growth, told the Times, “Free market is not always the same as pro-business.”

The Supreme Court

The conniptions of the five conservative justices on the Supreme Court this week were a wind-talker’s wonder, a cacophony of conservative coding gone terribly awry. Their overarching conflict stems from the conservative Heritage Foundation’s idea that since they don’t want Medicare For All, they’d mandate that every American must buy insurance from private companies to cover everyone as Medicare For All would, thereby enriching private companies (where single-payer simply cuts them out of the system altogether). Yet now, in order to inflict political pain on Obama, the Republican-appointed justices are saying no to the mandate—an outright attack on the bottom line of the insurance companies, who are, of course, their constituency.

If every Republican cut off his nose to spite his face like this, they’d truly become a party of mouth-breathers.

And that is a long tradition in American politics. In 1833 Andrew Jackson (channeling Ron Paul) got rid of the national bank (a forerunner of the Federal Reserve) on populist principles; he touched off a credit crisis and nationwide bank failures, as well as an epidemic of inflation as state banks printed money to take up the currency slack. The economy did not fully recover until the Civil War.

Remind anyone of the debt ceiling imbroglio last summer? This isn’t about programs that work, or even ideology, but really about holding onto power at any cost. And when they know their attack lines won’t win over the voters, they’ll go for brute force, whether it’s shutting down the government or, as could be the determining factor this November, suppressing the vote. 

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