In the crazy world of politics, and in the crazier world of presidential primary politics, there were few things more quixotic than Jon Huntsman’s futile bid for the presidency. Huntsman behaved as though he stopped observing American politics the morning after Barack Obama was elected president, and didn’t bother catching up even when he announced his candidacy. In many ways he was the anti-Romney, running to the left of his actual record as governor. His debate performances were uniformly terrible, as his attempts at humor fell flat, and he otherwise offered up little more than empty bromides and bland slogans that were meant to appeal to . . . well, I’m not really sure who they appealed to other than the 12 people who voted for him.
Now, in a general election where even Ron Paul has sorta kinda made peace with the Republican party, Huntsman is on a media speaking tour. Huntsman went on CNN today and blathered about the GOP’s lack of inclusiveness and the party’s inability to offer real solutions. Video is available at the Right Scoop. The other night, Hunstman appeared on the Colbert Report. I don’t normally watch mini-Stewart, but I was in a semi-feverish state and lacked the ability to change the channel. Immediately Huntsman complained about the general state of American politics. He asked when was the last time we got together as a country and tried to work our problems out and achieve solutions to our problems. The utter vacuousness of this comment acted like a magical healing balm, filling me with the strength to pick up my remote and flip off the television, but not before hurling an agitated and incomprehensible epithet for which I must now go to Confession.
What was so outrageous about the comment? It means literally nothing. First of all, what is this great national debate that we’re supposed to be having? Is there going to be a scheduled moment when all Americans gather and hash out their feelings? More importantly, people have offered solutions – they are just solutions that Jon Huntsman doesn’t like. And that, right there, crystallizes the problem I have with so many political moderates.
Huntsman speaks for many of the erudite middle. These formerly voiceless souls were given the force to speak their mind when David Frum and others created the “No Labels” movement. Frustrated by the endless partisan bickering between ideological camps that believe in something, these brave souls have shouted from the rooftops “We are mad as heck and we’re not going to take it anymore! Two different political parties shaped by totally different ideologies refuse to capitulate to one another, and thanks to the complex system of separation of powers and checks and balances that governs our country, are unable to solve all of our problems with one giant piece of compromise legislation that will eliminate our debt, cure our ailing economy, guarantee peace in the Middle East, and deliver ponies to all the little girls who desire them. We have no particular idea how to solve these problems, and surely anything we offer is likely to offend someone, so we’re not actually going to explain just what exactly we would do other than say we like some Republican ideas and some Democrat ideas. Which Republican ideas and which Democrat ideas? Well let’s not get into specifics. No, instead we’re just going to passive-aggressively bemoan the political process and caterwaul about the lack of specifics. Even though several important political figures have offered painstakingly detailed economic plans – twice. What we mean is that we don’t like detailed programs that we disagree with. So someone should enunciate a very detailed, intricate policy proposal that pleases Democrats about halfway, and Republicans halfway, and that will solve all our problems. And then we’ll all have unicorns too.”
Okay. So maybe no one said anything precisely like that. But it certainly captures attitudes I have seen expressed by those in the so-called middle.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing in my experience dealing with the independent set is their lack of substance. Again, I don’t refer to all moderates and independents. But a good chunk of them, reflected especially in facebook conversations I have regrettably engaged in, are as vague as the politicians they like to complain about. Most of their comments are posts go something like this: I don’t like Paul Ryan because he’s too extreme. The GOP is too extreme. They always nominate extremists. John McCain would be an ideal Republican, but he became extreme for two months in the Fall of 2008, so I voted for Obama. Why can’t more Republicans be like John McCain? Well, the good John McCain.
That was an actual series of arguments presented by a friend of mine. When I pointed out it was bizarre to complain about the extreme GOP in a year in which Mitt Romney is the party’s nominee, he basically hemmed and hawed and just went back to complaining about the extreme Republican party.
This was not an isolated incident. I’ve seen this play out on blogs, on television, on radio chats, and in all types of venues. People express their dissatisfaction with both political parties. They complain about the tone and incivility of politics and pine for the good old days when everybody just got along (thus exposing their complete ignorance of American political history). They mention ideological extremism a few dozen times. In many cases they mention something vaguely about Republicans and social issues, and discuss how they used to have a more favorable view of the GOP until they veered so far right (yet again exposing their ignorance of American political history). Then there’s more stuff about tone. And some more about extremism. Absent from their discourse, in most cases, is any indication of what they actually think should happen. Compromise is not a political platform. Aside from the fact that that some issues don’t admit of compromise, there is little mention of what specific aspects of the respective party platforms should be kept, nor any idea how incompatible ideas can be combined.
What strikes me about this set is that their own cynicism helps fuel the stasis that they bemoan. They have become so enraptured in their own self-righteousness that they refuse to work within the system to fix it. They focus on unsubstantial, petty issues like tone and civility, and automatically dismiss political leaders on either side who offer concrete visions for this country. Many of them take a snobbish view of the intellect of the American public (especially those rabble rousers on the right), yet they gullibly ape talking points sprouted in social media outlets.
These “No Label” Huntsmanites are all a part of the “a pox on both your houses” coalition. A completely different aspect of this coalition are those who have very definite political leanings, yet feel that both parties are unworthy of support. I have more toleration for this group because they are generally more informed, have clearer political opinions that they are not afraid to express, and because I have felt as they do times. I still think this group is misguided. I cannot agree with the sentiment that both parties are equally bad. Oh, sure, the GOP has caused me no small deal of consternation over the years. Yet the Democrat party, as a Catholic and as a conservative, offers nothing for me. They are utterly abhorrent on social issues, particularly on two issues most dear to Catholics – abortion and marriage. They don’t get much better on economic and fiscal issues. No, their economic platform may not violate Church teaching, but it certainly doesn’t exemplify it either as left-wing Catholics like to pretend. No, the two parties are not equally bad, and one of them at least offers some refuge for even the most jaded among us.
Please don’t take this as an apology for the Republican party, and especially not for Mitt Romney. There are plenty of reasons to be disgusted with contemporary politics, and with the political parties. I fear, though, that this very deep cynicism breeds a self-perpetuating cycle of political immobility. In some cases it serves as an excuse for doing nothing at all. At any rate, we are ill-served by forgetting that some individuals and even parties in the political world are less bad than others.