Start with the obvious – all politicians pander to one degree or another. It is an occupational hazard of the political art that admittedly some do more adroitly than others. Still staking out a position in order to maximize political support or to appeal to a particular slice of the electorate is as old as Lincoln.
As he maneuvered for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, Lincoln attempted deftly to manage the only issue that really mattered in that election – what to do about slavery and particularly whether slavery would be allowed to expand into new western territories. Ultimately elected with just 40 percent of the vote, Lincoln made his political appeal to the anti-slavery crowd, but also carefully attempted to reassure worried southerners and state’s rights advocates that he believed in working in the political process to settle big national disputes.
Lincoln’s political management of the slavery issue was both principled and pragmatic, which is what good politicians do. Lincoln had to appeal to northern Republicans, but at the same time attempt not to alienate another vast segment of the population. The stakes were beyond high. One might argue that Lincoln, one of the most skillful politicians to ever occupy the White House, was unsuccessful, but the fault sits with those who refused to believe Lincoln’s election was legitimate and his motives principled. Even before Lincoln was inaugurated in March 1861 seven southern states had voted to secede from the Union and a bloody civil war became inevitable even as Lincoln tried to head it off.
So much of Lincoln’s approach to the political arts – principles fused with pragmatism – still rings true 150 years after his death. It also rings true that the great man would not recognize the modern party that sponsors dinners in his name this time of year, but seems to act less and less in his spirit.
From unrestricted money to endless campaigns there is much to dislike about modern American politics, but perhaps there are few things more unsavory, and less like Lincoln, then the increasing tendency of candidates to embrace positions that they must know are unsustainable over the long run, but they embrace them nonetheless in the interest of short-term appeal to a narrow, ideological band of political activist. A variation on this theme is to simply refuse to answer questions about issue that if answered “incorrectly” might cause a flutter among the politically active in a suburb of West Des Moines, Iowa or in downtown Columbia, South Carolina.
This is the very definition of pander and it has almost nothing to do with principle.
As the Republican “shadow primary” continues to unfold and with the media focus constantly shifting to lavish attention of the GOP “flavor-of-the week” the current not-ready-for-prime-time contender has become Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Walker’s Tea Party flavor has taken him to the top of the latest polls in Iowa of Republican contenders largely on the strength of adopting – or refusing to specify – positions that he can’t sustain all the way to the White House, but might position him solidly with the element in his party that Teddy Roosevelt once called “the lunatic fringe.”
In the space of a few recent days Walker refused to say whether he believed in evolution, said “I don’t know whether Obama is a Christian,” and declined to offer a comment on Rudy Giuliani’s silly assertion that the President of the United States doesn’t love his country. For good measure and during the same period Walker doubled down on his opposition to abortion and engendered controversy in Wisconsin by trying to change (and dumb down) the mission statement of the state’s widely respected higher education system, while also proposing drastic cuts in that system.
Walker’s motives for failing to answer basic questions are as subtle as Vince Lombardi’s famous Green Bay Packer Sweep – he’s powering farther and farther to the right in the Republican contest for 2016 believing apparently that politics has suddenly become a game of subtraction rather than addition.
What Walker might have said to such basic questions seems so obvious. On the president’s religion, for example, he might have said: “It’s my understanding that the president has said many times that he is a Christian. I accept that since I am, too.” Or he might have said, as Jeb Bush essentially did, with regard to Obama’s patriotism: “I don’t presume to question the president’s loyalty or love of country, but I do disagree with him on policy.”
Maybe Walker really believes Barack Obama isn’t a Christian or is fundamentally disloyal to his country, but I’m guessing he is really playing – not very skillfully as it turns out – the Republican dog whistle game designed to reassure the party “base” that a presidential candidate is in on the far right joke. If you’re jockeying for Republican primary voters you can’t be too sure about science and it is impossible to be too critical of Obama.
For his part Walker blamed the media for all the attention he received for his evasions, which were really just code signaling that Walker “gets” the GOP primary voter. The media is guilty, Walker said, of playing “gotcha games.” Then Walker immediately began raising money on the basis that he had adopted an adversary relationship with the well-known “liberal” media.
“To me, this is a classic example of why people hate Washington and, increasingly, they dislike the press,” Walker said. “The things they care about don’t even remotely come close to what you’re asking about.”
Welcome to the world of the Republican presidential primary or, more correctly, the mad sprint to the far, far right where “strategy” and “message” mean you refuse to disassociate yourself from the ridiculous ranting of a one-time big city mayor and then blame the press for asking. As for “gotcha” questions stay tuned governor you ain’t heard nothing yet. Many good reporters know that the very best question is often a simple question that forces the politician to reveal – or hide – core beliefs.
How else to explain Walker not answering a question served up by a British interviewer who asked if the Wisconsin Tea Party darling believed in evolution. There is an appropriate answer for that question and it would be – yes, but Walker said he would “punt” instead. Offering up the correct answer based upon science, after all, might signify that Walker isn’t being appropriately sensitive to the apparently increasing number of self-identified Republicans who say they don’t believe in evolution.
As the New Yorker’s John Cassidy says: “In a more just world, Walker’s indecent and craven antics would disqualify him from playing any further role in the Presidential race. But in the current political environment, his tactics, far from hurting him, may well bolster a candidacy that is already thriving.”
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul drove into this message cul-de-sac recently when they tried to finesse, again for the benefit of the far, far right of their party, the question of whether parents ought to get their children immunized. The overwhelming scientific and medical evidence is that yes you should get your kids immunized. Vaccination for school children also happens to be the law in all 50 states and 83 percent of Americans according to a recent Pew survey believe vaccines are safe. But apparently the nine percent who don’t agree about the safety of immunizations (seven percent say they don’t know) all vote Republican in the Iowa caucus.
Both parties have their litmus test issues, but the Republican test is fraught with more political peril. When immunization, evolution and the patriotism of the man in the White House become questions GOP candidates need to bob and weave around you have a sense that a vast swath of the American electorate is already quietly shaking their heads and asking is this the best we can do?
As the usually astute political observer Charlie Cook pointed out recently, “Given that, since 2009, the organizing principle for most Republican campaigns for the White House, the House, and the Senate has been to oppose Obama, Obamacare, and most other administration policies, Republicans need to think about what they are going to stand for as the end of the president’s time in office nears, and after he’s gone.”
Cook suggests, and I agree, the defining issue of the 2016 campaign will be “real incomes” and the fact that “accounting for inflation, the median income for American households peaked in 1999, at $56,895, and has been going down since. The average American family has been losing ground for a decade and a half.” Try punting on that one.
The real peril for Republicans as they maneuver to replace Obama, and Scott Walker really is just the flavor-of-the-week, is whether they pander so much to the fringe of their party that they can’t generate credibility with the rest of the country on issues that, as Walker might say, “come close to what you are talking about,” including real incomes of middle class Americans.
The terribly witty Dorothy Parker long ago reportedly quipped – appropriately it would seem in Governor Walker’s case – “that you can’t teach an old dogma new tricks.” It’s a sad testament to the state of politics that no one, with the possible exception of Jeb Bush, is even tentatively challenging the old dogma that has come to define the modern GOP and led them to defeat in the last two presidential elections. Sadly Republican presidential candidates again seem to be locked into a long, twilight struggle to narrowly define themselves by the dogma they are convinced they must embrace in order to appeal to the party’s primary voters.
It was just that kind of thinking, after all, that got a socialist, Kenya-born Muslim, who is disloyal to America and probably believes in evolution elected President of the United States in the first place.