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Shadow Boxing 

All the Obama-hating is getting the Republicans nowhere; in fact, they should be making common cause with the president

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A group called the Friends of Democracy Corps (Clinton Democrats, mostly) has come out with a most thoughtful and disinterested study of today's Republican Party. The writers begin: "If you want to understand the government shutdown and the crisis in Washington you need to get inside the base of the Republican Party."

Their study relies heavily on Republican Party member focus groups. The writers, Stan Greenberg, James Carville and Erica Seifert, open with the general observation that today's GOP base should be viewed not as a cohesive whole but as a kind of political confederation. They are united around some common concerns, but they differ on many policy fronts — call them "states" of Republicanism: "Evangelicals," "the Tea Party," and "Moderates."

The writers listed the key findings: Republicans all associate Obama with ever-bigger government; they see the Democrats creating, especially though health care, yet one more "dependent minority which will give them a governing majority"; and, in one interviewee's words, "the problem is Republicans failing to stop [Obama]."

Here, however, emerge the fault lines within the confederation. The Evangelicals have "a deep sense of cultural and political loss," the loss of community and a "deep cultural rot." Homosexuality is very threatening to Evangelicals. Tea Party Republicans, however, don't care all that much about any of these social issues; their focus is on "loss of liberty and decline of responsibility." They are much more concerned about big government, regulations and dependency. And the Moderates, which the writers estimate make up only about a quarter of the party membership? They remain committed on "market-based economics." But on social issues, not only do they not share the concerns of the Evangelicals, they actually support many of the very policies that the religious right abhors, e.g., gay marriage and immigration reform.

The writers found that the "the base (all three parts) believe that they are losing politically and losing control of the country." The words used by focus group participants were "worried," "discouraged," "scared" and "concerned."

The writers have produced a 30-page report, and I can't do it justice in a single column. That noted, a few observations.

First, while it might come as a big surprise to the so-very-troubled GOP, I must say that I don't know of a single Democrat (and I know more than a few) who regard Barack Obama to be even a flaming liberal, let alone a socialist. His own base views him sitting not much to the left of the likes of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.

Consider: Ike endorsed the New Deal. He created an agency that is today the Department of Health and Human Services, now responsible for administering the health reform law. He undertook the single largest public works project in the history of the country — the Interstate Highway System. He enforced integration on Arkansas. It was his nominee to the Court, Earl Warren, who wrote the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Ike also ended the Korean War, but did so by accepting that Truman's containment strategy was preferable to what his conservative "base" really wanted: "making the world safe for democracy" by any force necessary. He forced the South Korean regime to accept the same deal that the Truman Administration had already negotiated (and were being called "Commies" for their trouble).

And Nixon? My goodness; Dick dined with Mao and with Zhou. He created the conservatives' nemesis, the Environmental Protection Agency. He signed into law the Occupational Safety and Health Act, also a conservative target. Nor should we forget that Nixon had his own "Obamacare," which likely would have become law had Ted Kennedy not insisted on a broader bill (which he later regretted).

Given their litany of woes, instead of denouncing Obama, Republicans ought to praise him for taking on this festering economic and social problem — a problem that has needed to be fixed for a long time, i.e., that we spend too much and our results are comparatively poor.

By denigrating this family man, this slightly left-of-center Democrat, the GOP looks only at shadows on the cave wall. Their paranoid hatred for Obama is actually self-defeating. Yes, they are "losing control," and yes, "community" is under siege; but Barack Obama has nothing to do with it. He has become a diversion, a kind of placebo anxiety pill. What's causing loss of control and community? Among the candidates are globalization, technology, Wall Street, materialism and environmental degradation, with urbanization cutting several ways.

Setting aside that nothing can ever justify shutting down the government nor risking U.S. credit, the paradoxical truth of the matter that is that if loss of control and community are their concerns, in Obama they have perhaps their biggest ally. On the list of "family men" and presidents with a communitarian instinct and personal appreciation for the importance of gaining control, Obama has to be at the top. ♦

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