The GOP Doesn’t Want It

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There was an amazing thing on CNN last week: President Obama went into a place full of people hostile to his policies in general and on gun control in particular, and took their questions for two hours. He was not given the questions in advance; CNN proudly stated at the outset that the Town Hall Meeting was a 100% CNN production, with no input from the White House other than what time Obama would be there.

CNN has a bad reputation in the red states as the Communist News Network, hopelessly slanted toward Obama and the Democrats and generally unwatchable. For the most part, I happen to think they’re half right: CNN is unwatchable, but it’s not because of any particular liberal bias. CNN’s bias is toward the splashiest, trashiest clickbait stories, and they don’t care where they come from, just so long as they’re salacious. (It just so happens that Republicans are generally better at providing those.) I watched a few weeks ago as a reporter “covering” the San Bernardino shootings stuck a microphone in a man’s face as he tried to call his missing son’s cell phone, pushing in slowly for a closeup of whatever reaction he might have to whatever came on the line, or didn’t. That was totally nonpartisan, garden-variety ambulance chasing. CNN are a bunch of vultures and they suck at TV is what I’m saying.

For a while, though, Guns in America came off better than just about anything I’ve seen on CNN since the first Gulf War. There were none of the technical miscues that typically mar any CNN broadcast, and host Anderson Cooper, also hated by the right as a socialist elitist communist mouthpiece, did a surprisingly good job of presenting the anti-gun control argument and pressing Obama for details and voicing the widespread skepticism to Obama’s stated positions on the matter.

For his part, Obama was relaxed, focused, passionate, and engaging on the issue. He didn’t shrink from his desire to expand background checks, but he stated firmly, and I thought plausibly, his understanding of and respect for rural gun culture and the Second Amendment. The dialogue was genuine, his answers were often more respectful than the questions, and he didn’t pander to the audience; he acknowledged their suspicion even as he mocked the idea that he’d planned to put Texas under martial law using tunnels under Wal-Marts, and quite sensibly pointed out that if he intended to come for anyone’s guns, surely he would have begun such a project sooner than seven years into an eight-year presidency. In short, he was like a human being, and I came away impressed with how directly he engaged with such a tough issue.

And then it was over, and the Communist News Network tossed coverage to its eleventeen pundits, nearly all of whom declared the whole event a deception, professed disbelief at Obama’s wanton contempt for responsible gun owners, his hatred of the Constitution and America itself. (So much for that liberal bias you hear so much about.) The moves Obama is proposing fall miles short of anything the gun control advocates want to see — they’re little more than a rededication to enforcing existing laws, in accordance with the loudest mantra of the anti-reform crowd — but they were being portrayed like a totalitarian coup and the wholesale revocation of the Second Amendment. The disconnect was striking.

Then this week Obama gave his eighth and final State of the Union Address. Rather than demonstrate the definition of insanity and offer another traditional laundry list of policy suggestions that would inevitably splinter against the GOP’s brick wall of No Fucking Way, Obama instead looked back at his administration’s achievements, which include saving an economy that was capsizing just as he took office, reversing the hemorrhaging job market and cutting unemployment in half, ending two wars, keeping us out of at least three others, expanding both clean energy and domestic fossil fuel production enough to get gas below $2 a gallon and render the Keystone XL pipeline irrelevant, bringing healthcare costs under control, reducing the deficit by nearly $1 trillion, expanding healhcare access to people with pre-existing conditions with the Affordable Care Act… that’s just off the top of my head, there were probably a few more.

Once again, Obama was loose, personable, and relaxed, but firm and confident. He was engaging and sounded nothing if not reasonable, sensible, responsible. He didn’t make any outrageous policy prescriptions; he hardly proposed anything at all. Instead he lightly chided the idea that any country or party or terrorist cell presented any kind of existential threat to America, that we are the strongest nation on Earth, that we have nothing to fear, as another president once said, but fear itself.

But to look at the response to this speech on Twitter and in the comments of news stories about it, you’d have thought he’d banged his shoe on the lectern and barked a spittle-flecked diatribe against the very notions of private property, homeland security, the rule of law, the Second Amendment, and the Constitution itself. The well-documented accomplishments Obama ticked off were either dismissed, denied, or pilloried as attacks on freedom, on the Constitution, on the very fabric of America.

It’s hard for me to square the moderate, competent, levelheaded Obama I see with my eyes when I watch his speeches and press conferences and unscripted Town Halls with the wild-eyed fanatical fifth-column jihadist portrayed by the right, who take it as a given that Obama’s every thought, word, and deed is weighed against its value in taking his country down.

I did not wish to hear this viewpoint expressed by any of the Republican voters in my extended family when I saw them over Christmastime, and I assume they did not wish to hear my rebuttals, so we all avoided the topics of gun control (an extra hot one in my family) and Obama and politics in general, and a good time was had by all. But at a certain point a few of them got to commiserating about the tragedy that Hillary Clinton was inevitably going to be the next president, because “the Republicans can’t get their act together.” None of them could see themselves voting enthusiastically for any of the 19 Republican candidates, and nearly a year before the election they’ve already written the whole thing off as lost.

If you really believe that the current president is tearing down America brick by brick and that a Democratic successor would presumably continue that project, a shrugging “Ah well, we’ll get ’em in 2020” seems like a peculiar attitude to take, especially this far out from the election.

Listening to the online response to the Guns in America Town Hall and then the State of the Union, and the insane disconnect between what Obama is saying and what Republicans are hearing, and then reading about last night’s Chicken Little Republican debate (because, after the last five debates, I just couldn’t bear to watch it), I remembered those shrugs in my grandmother’s living room, and I began to wonder if maybe they’re shrugging because they don’t even really want a Republican in the White House.

I mean, what party that seriously wanted to win a national election in which the voters are split just about 50/50 between the parties would start with 19 deeply uncharismatic and/or visibly disturbed candidates and whittle them down to Ted Cruz and Donald Trump? Does anyone really think either of these guys, who are currently at the top of GOP primary polling, can win a national election? Given the lack of enthusiasm among Democratic voters, myself included, for a Hillary Clinton presidency, and the fact that a two-term president is nearly always succeeded by someone from the other party, this would seem to be the Republicans’ race to lose, but they seem to be determined to lose it.

After the four-alarm garbage fire that Obama inherited when he took office in 2009 — a cratered economy, a collapsing banking system, 10% unemployment, rising deficits, two costly and unwinnable wars — it must have been a great relief to the GOP not to have to honestly confront any of it, instead trying to blame it all on Obama and turn him, through a relentless campaign of distortion, exaggeration, and outright fabrication, into a moustache-twirling Satan bent on the destruction of America. It gave them something to talk about other than the empirical failure of their approach to governance and their lack of any other ideas, and it kept their voters angry and motivated, because who wants a moustache-twirling Satan in the White House? The Republicans won seats in both midterms under Obama, but were never able to agree even among themselves on anything other than repealing Obamacare. But who cares about governance as long as the lobbyist/donor gravy train keeps rolling?

A Hillary Clinton presidency would serve that purpose even more effectively. She has been the ultimate GOP bogeyman for nearly 25 years, and rather than spend the next four to eight years reversing Obama’s policies and once again proving that their ideas don’t work, it seems they’d much rather spend it shrieking about Hillary’s secret 30-year Plan to Destroy America. So much easier!

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