GOP's trifecta of doom: How candidates, issues and culture are building a 2016 calamity

To fully sense its crumbling apparatus, look not just at folks like Rubio and Cruz -- but also Rush and Sterling

Published May 23, 2014 3:23PM (EDT)

Rush Limbaugh, Ted Cruz, Donald Sterling                    (Reuters/Micah Walter/Adrees Latif/AP/Mark J. Terrill)
Rush Limbaugh, Ted Cruz, Donald Sterling (Reuters/Micah Walter/Adrees Latif/AP/Mark J. Terrill)

On Tuesday, I looked at Chris Christie's crumbling hopes for 2016, as reflected in recent scandal developments on three fronts. I followed up with a look at how Marco Rubio and Rand Paul both showed signs of stumbling in different ways. These stories could easily be expanded to include the entire GOP field. None of the GOP prospects has caught fire, and just as success breeds success, the opposite holds true as well. But it's not just a matter of individual candidates.

There are at least two other facets to the woes facing the GOP today — above and beyond the fact that Democrats have more electoral votes in their state-level base than Republicans do. The first is the issue landscape: gay marriage and marijuana legalization are spreading at state levels; economic inequality is growing as an issue, even as many GOP candidates now reject even the concept of a minimum wage; Obamacare has now largely shifted to a bundle of rights and benefits that people stand to lose; global warming is regaining the salience it had before the Tea Party showed up and the GOP turned deeply denialist; and the public is now firmly antiwar, much as it has been, pretty much from the aftermath of the Tet Offensive through the first Gulf War. This is not to say that all the issues favor the Democrats. To the contrary, Gallup just issued its most recent top issue findings, which seem to show the opposite, based primarily on questionable trust placed in Republicans' supposed economic competence (more on that below), though others disagree.

A second facet is the social/cultural context. What do I mean by that? Think Trayvon Martin, Sandy Hook, Sandra Fluke, Fast Food strikes and Donald Sterling — all examples of social media empowering a framework of norms and voices of people whom the political establishment usually ignores. Way back in 2002, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira wrote a book, "The Emerging Democratic Majority," about the long-term demographic trends favoring the Democratic Party. With Obama's election in 2008, and his reelection in 2012, we seemed to be seeing their prediction come to pass. But the dramatic midterm losses of 2010 put a definite crimp in the story. What I mean by the social/cultural context is the combination of that demographic potential with the bottom-up social self-organizing that social media helps make possible. This context was fully exploited by Obama in his 2008 campaign, before most others fully realized its potential, and it bodes well to play a significant role in 2016 as well.

When thinking about 2016, the current issue landscape favors the Democrats, but with one notable exception: the economy. While the current media/polling focus is on the 2014 midterms, the state of issues today, along with where they have been, gives the Democrats a broad advantage in 2016. In the most recent Washington Post/ABC poll, for example, the overall news for Democrats isn't good, but voters still favor Democrats on virtually every issue, starting with a whopping 15-point gap on the minimum wage, 49-35 percent, an even bigger 20-point gap (52-32 percent) on who will do a better job helping the middle class, and a Godzilla-size 30-point gap (55-25 percent) on who will do a better job helping women. Yet, compared to these rather astonishing gaps, Democrats only had a very modest 3-point lead (41-38 percent) on “who the public trusts on the economy.” Thus, even the Post is telling us that “the economy” as a whole generates less trust in Democrats compared to other issues.

There are good reasons to think this brand strength won't help Republicans in the White House run in 2016, however, even aside from the other issues favoring Democrats. One is that this strength will have to be channeled through a single candidate, and who that is will almost certainly complicate their messaging, as Romney almost comically did in 2012.

A second reason is that Democrats are increasingly focusing on how to campaign better on economic issues — something that's very long overdue. Democracy Corps is the exception that proves the rule (see a recent memo from them here). Carville and Greenberg have been focused on the issue forever — remember “It's the economy, stupid?” — but their campaign advice is consistently underutilized. Potentially winning narratives that they field-test do get used in campaigns, but seldom with the sort of breadth and scope that Republicans manage on a regular basis.

Recently, however, cognitive linguist Anat Shenker-Osorio has taken on a much deeper and wide-ranging examination of how progressives and others think and communicate about economic issues, which she presented at length in her book "Don't Buy It: The Trouble With Talking Nonsense About the Economy." (My review here.) So I asked her to bring me up to date on the latest developments in her work, in partnership with Lake Partners and for clients who include the Center for Community Change. She explained that her work is based on brand-new dial tests of large representative samples of likely voters in 2014, and that what they're looking for is intensity — motivation to get voters to the poll in a low-turnout off-year election. But the results should generalize to motivating volunteers as well as base turnout in 2016 as well.

“What progressives and, yes, even just Democrats, need to be doing is talking less about the economy as some fickle entity they intend to appease and more about the purse-string issues that directly affect you, me and other potential voters,” Shenker-Osorio told me.

“So, less 'I can better manage the economy,'” she continued, “And more 'With work increasingly demanding more while offering up less, we're overdue for new rules.' If Republicans want to talk 'family values,' it’s time they start valuing families.”

“That means recognizing that Americans need paid time for illness or caring for family, affordable childcare, and a fair wage,” she elaborated. “It also means that putting food on the table for your family shouldn’t require that you’re never home to eat it. People who work hard deserve more than a decent living -- they deserve a decent life.”

If it sounds sort of simple, well, it is, in a way. Think of it as progressive message discipline.

With that as a starting point, she said, “It's a short hop to demonstrating how the GOP has consistently blocked every attempt to make life better for most Americans, from refusing to increase the pathetic minimum wage to dismantling workplace protections to personally -- as businessmen -- robbing American moms from the earnings they deserve for their work.

“In short, say less about what you'll do for the economy and more about what you'll do for Americans,” she concluded.

Next, Shenker-Osorio brought up a crucial shift in focus. “The other dynamic we're seeing is the need to connect what happens on the job to what's going on around the dinner table,” she said. “While we keep showing and discussing workplace conditions and pay, people think first of their families and how work does or doesn't allow them to put food on the table. People work for their family and there's most assuredly a hierarchy -- family comes first.

“When you recast messages about people's economic circumstances in this frame, you show fewer job sites and more people celebrating birthdays at home, grilling in the yard, attending a school event, coaching Little League. Where I'm not a train driver or nurse or prep cook and so I don't relate to those images, I do have a family and friends. Better rules about work are less about what happens on the job; they're about getting paid enough to put dinner on the table and being allowed home in time to eat it.”

Put that way, it also suggests a broader point: that economics should serve other purposes, not dictate them, and that economic issues should likewise find their place in a broader issue landscape, rather than dominating over it from above. Thus progressives can not only do better on economic issues by following the pathways that Shenker-Osorio points out, they can also do even better with the issue landscape as a whole — an issue landscape that already favors them on most noneconomic issues.

Looking back a bit, this fits in nicely with how recognition of the Republican war on women evolved from a reproductive rights framework to a broader multi-issue one, in which economics figured prominently on several fronts — from the economic dimension of reproductive rights to gender pay equity, to cuts in the social safety net, and the battle to raise the minimum wage.

Looking forward, it also suggests how the always dubious, now clearly outdated framing of the economy vs. the environment might finally be marginalized. It's a framing that's only “common sense” for those exploiting the environment, not for those drawing on it in a sustainable way, taking full account of all the costs and benefits involved. Consider the recent news that seven red state Democratic senators have written a letter to Obama asking him to withdraw his proposed new coal plant regulations:

“We are committed to improving air quality; however, the emissions standards in the proposed rule are not based on technology that has been adequately demonstrated on a commercial scale," the letter, spearheaded by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Joe Donnelly (Ind.) states.

Sens. Mary Landrieu (La.), Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Mark Warner (Va.), all vulnerable Democrats facing reelection in November, signed the letter.

The assumption here is that the environment is expendable, the economy is not. But which serves which? And which is easier to remake in a more beneficial form? Remember, people are a part of both. And the environment provides tremendous economic value in terms of what are known as “ecosystem services”—everything from clean air and water to the foundations of an entire way of life. A full accounting of the costs and benefits of coal — not even considering global warming — shows that coal's costs far outweigh its benefits, as I explained in 2011:

A 2009 scientific study by Michael Hendryx and Melissa Ahern found that the externalised costs of coal mining in Appalachia, solely due to premature death vastly exceeded the $8 billion economic contribution of coal mining. in contrast, the costs ranged from $18.5 to $84.5 billion, with a point estimate of $50 billion.

"The environmental damages that are done by mountaintop mining, the destruction of streams, the destruction of forests that would sequester a lot of carbon and produce oxygen - they have tremendous economic value," Hendryx told me.

But these ecosystem services were beyond the scope of his study, which focused solely on the costs of premature death - the dominant loss in the clean air regulatory service. "The costs that we estimated from mortality are really very conservative," he said, "as they don't include those tremendous environmental costs that are associated with the practice as well."

When coal is being mined at the cost of human life like this, it is being subsidized by everyone who dies, so that coal companies can turn a profit, and the vast majority of those who die are the residents of coal country themselves, while the vast majority of the profits go elsewhere. This is nothing remotely like a textbook example of a free market, despite the rhetoric used to defend it.

Of course it's unrealistic to expect vulnerable senators to suddenly wake up and realize this. But it's not unrealistic at all to pursue the process of changing hearts and minds. Bottom-up views around gay marriage have changed dramatically since 2004 -- some are even making the conservative case for it now — and the views of politicians have gradually followed the views of the people. The same could happen for coal in the years ahead, particularly as more and more people come to see the impacts of global warming already showing up in increased extreme weather, and other worrisome signs. Something related is happening already for the renewable alternatives to coal, as growth in renewable energy has been staggering. According to its own Department of Commerce, red state Kansas doubled its wind production in 2012 alone, and is already projecting a future as a substantial net wind energy exporter.

This potential shift in bottom-up understanding brings us back to the second facet of the Democrats' advantage looking toward 2016, the social/cultural context. When conservative activists and Republican lawmakers took aim at Planned Parenthood, they had no idea what they were getting into. Like Sen. John Kyl, they were so intoxicated with their own “abortion mill” propaganda that they had no grasp of how deeply rooted it was in so many communities, providing so much basic healthcare for millions of women. More than that, they had no idea of how effectively Planned Parenthood, activists and those it served could mobilize in response.

Conservative Republicans were equally unprepared for the consequences when Darrell Issa, Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, refused to let Sandra Fluke participate as part of an all-male panel testifying about contraceptive coverage. And Rush Limbaugh was certainly unprepared for the consequences when he went on an unhinged three-day, fact-free, name-calling rant against her. The bottom-up furor that resulted brought about a massive exodus of advertisers, which had damaged the entire talk-show industry by its one-year anniversary.

A similar story can be told around the murder of Trayvon Martin. Once again, business-as-usual by conservative establishment figures was fiercely and unexpectedly challenged by a spontaneously self-organizing movement in response, which articulated a dramatically different framework of understanding. Of course, various different organizations got involved, but the movement for justice for Trayvon Martin was not created by any of them. It was primarily a bottom-up self-organizing movement. While one of the key issues raised by that movement — the need to roll back violence-promoting “stand your ground” laws — seems stalled for the moment, another issue, highlighted especially by the Dream Defenders, seems to be gaining steam: the need to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. (Don't forget, the reason Trayvon Martin was in Sanford in the first place was that he had been suspended from school for a minor infraction, outside of school policy — something that happens quite frequently with targeted black male youths.) Even Rand Paul has made noises in this direction, but this issue is not about to favor Republicans at the national level.

Rather, it seems clearly in line with the Moral Mondays movement that's grown exponentially in response to North Carolina's millionaire-funded right-wing lurch, and which is now spreading to other Southern states. Just to underscore how these different manifestations are inter-related, here's a passage about the woman-themed Moral Mondays meeting of July 15, 2013:

Reproductive rights organizations like Planned Parenthood-NC and NARAL Pro-Choice-NC – and lots of pink t-shirts – are here. Executive Director Suzanne Buckley of NARAL’s state chapter situates reproductive freedom in broader moral and ethical terms, refusing to cede morality to the Christian Right. She tells the audience, “Let me be clear – being pro-choice is a moral position. Women’s lives matter. Women deserve our trust and respect.”

But the Moral Monday crowd sees justice for women in broader terms than just abortion rights. That’s why so many of these speakers discuss how economic disparity in our state disproportionately affects women. Executive Director Angeline Echeverría of non-partisan Latino advocacy organization El Pueblo, Inc. speaks about undocumented mothers who face police profiling and discrimination while driving to work. “It doesn’t matter what political party you belong to!” she says to loud applause, “This isn’t right for Carolina del Norte!”

Of course, right-wing groups can organize in a similar fashion. Reflexively, the Tea Party movement comes to mind. But that movement was heavily promoted on Fox News for month after month when it was first launched. No one can doubt there's a deep-rooted conservative presence in America. But the momentum for quite some time now seems to clearly favor progressives, helping to promote an issue landscape that's increasingly at odds with where the GOP is headed, as its establishment becomes increasingly similar to the Tea Party, just without the funny hats.

The 2014 midterms still seem like a major challenge to Democrats, although some signs of hope are starting to appear. If the Democrats do perform better than currently projected, it could signal that the deeper trends discussed above will be even more powerful in 2016 than they now appear — perhaps even powerful enough to give the Democrats another White House/Senate/House trifecta again. Maybe, just maybe, we can start to imagine the end of gridlock in our lifetimes.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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