11 July 2011

Republican standards of 'accomplishment'

The state of Minnesota is a regular little laboratory of Republican polemics. Two of its leading Republicans are candidates for the party's presidential nomination for 2012 -- former governor Pawlenty and current Rep. Bachmann. The latter is currently outpolling and probably out-fundraising the former, and the erstwhile executive doesn't like it. Pawlenty went negative on Bachmann yesterday, contending that the Representative had a "nonexistent" record of "accomplishments" compared to his experience in administration. A President, he argues, should have experience in leading a "large enterprise" like a state government. Bachmann disagrees. Attempting to refute Pawlenty's criticism, she defines her accomplishments as profiles in advocacy, from speaking out against the Obama agenda to inspiring thousands of others to protest against it in Washington. In other words, her primary qualification for the highest office in the land is her supposed success as a demagogue.

This Minnesota feud reflects the confused nature of Republican ideology at this point in American history. Bachmann sounds like the more authentic -- or more stereotypical "conservative" Republican, while Pawlenty has been denounced to me (by Mr. Right) as "not a real conservative." The former governor probably exposes the roots of far-right distrust of him by boasting of his administrative experience and avowing his eagerness to administer the nation, while Bachmann probably endears herself further to her national base by implicitly repudiating a desire to administer in office and explicitly repudiating an administrative standard of accomplishment. The Republican paradox requires partisans to aspire to power in order that power not be exercised where they think it doesn't belong. They must consolidate and maximize power to prevent it from being "abused" by bureaucrats and social engineers. They must appear to practice negative administration, monopolizing power in order not to do anything. No slip of the tongue that hints at a desire to actually govern or administer, to guide or direct the nation, can be forgiven. While some Republicans may still consider a successful boss in the private sector to be the ideal President, few want that person to actually be the "boss" of the nation. Instead, in a debasement of Theodore Roosevelt's notion of the "bully pulpit," and in supposed emulation of Ronald Reagan, Republicans of the Bachmannite ilk envision the Presidency primarily as a platform for moral exhortation and the prevention of governmental expansion. Since the President should not do anything (but act decisively as Commander-in-Chief), administrative accomplishments are no recommendation for the office. To the Bachmann base, it matters only that the candidate says the right things.

The differences in ideology between Bachmann and Pawlenty are probably trivial to anyone but the most dogmatically sectarian Republican, but their need to differentiate themselves exposes the contradictions in 21st century Republicanism. Bachmann implicitly chides Pawlenty for wanting power and wanting to use it. Her supporters are presumably those most distrusting of the "career politician," yet Bachmann is as much such a creature as Pawlenty. No amount of disclaimers can refute the fact that Bachmann wants to hold power, if only to hold it in check in the ideologically-approved fashion. But if the Republican base is so distrustful of politicians and politics itself, why should they trust anyone who openly aspires to the ultimate power? If they revere the Founders and want to restore their model of politics, they should recall that no one was meant originally to run for office in the way we recognize today. Leaders were supposed to be drafted from the ranks of the people, either by elected notables or through mass meetings later ratified at the polls. In our earliest time, at least on paper, anyone who sought office was suspect. On what basis, then, can Republicans trust one candidate and not another, when they should distrust the entire process and the party machines it has created? A logical extension of Bachmann's implicit negative standard of accomplishment might well disqualify the candidate herself from consideration for the power she craves.

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