There’s a wonderful 1932 now-forgotten film—except in film classes—called "The Phantom President," which comes to mind every four years during primaries when things look bleak on either side. It’s about party leaders stuck with Theodore Blair, a “good” candidate—he would make a good president—but who has no charism, no charm, no pizzaz. Blair’s staff take in a vaudeville show and before their eyes is Doc Peter Varney, who sings, and dances, including that marvelous step where he walks up the side wall, does a flip, and lands on his feet, and looks exactly like their candidate. The original George M. Cohan, not James Cagney, in his next-to last screen appearance plays both parts. You know the rest. The vaudevillian campaigns while the “real” candidate stays home and works.
Sunday’s New York Times page one carried a story about Democrats fretting aloud about President Obama's reelection chances. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbanks column described the Congressional audience at Obama’s jobs speech as lethargic, disrespectful. When Obama called for summer jobs for disadvantaged youth, only six Democrats stood to cheer.
Obama may be taking a beating; but, for Democrats, one sun ray bursting through the clouds might be an article on the Web site Truthout by Mike Lofgren, a 30-year Republican Congressional staffer who has quit in disgust with both parties, particularly his own.
Both parties, says Lofgren, are rotten, both “captives to corporate loot,” but they are not rotten in the same way. Those who watched the debt ceiling extension debate, he says, may have been shocked to find the Republican party so full of lunatics. True, we’ve always had crackpot outliers like Rep. Robert K. Dornan, but today they, like Michele Bachman, have become the “vital center.” They used the debt limit vote, a routine legislative procedure which has been used 87 times since the end of World War II, “in order to concoct an entirely artificial fiscal crisis.” Then to use that fiscal crisis “to get what they wanted, by literally holding the US and global economies as hostages.”
The Republican party has become more like an apocalyptic cult, Lofgren says. Virtually every bill, nominee for Senate confirmation, and routine procedure is subject to a Republican filibuster, legislating has become like war, but without the shooting. A few years ago a fellow-Republican staff director explained the strategy to Lofgren: Obstruct the Congress from doing its job, to so lower its prestige that they could get the pubic to hate the very institution of government. That’s all government. So the party against government would win. As Ronald Reagan said, “Government is the problem.”
Republicans have also systematically made it more difficult to vote. In Wisconsin they required a photo ID, then shut down offices of the Department of Motor Vehicles in Democratic neighborhoods. And among the GOP base there is constant harping about people who are “other”—blacks, immigrants, Muslims, gays, intellectuals—making sure there’s a handy scapegoat to hate and fear.
The Republican party, Lofgren concludes, has three principal tenets. 1. Care solely and exclusively or the rich contributors. 2. They worship at the altar of Mars. This decade’s unbridled militarism, plus the Democrats’ cowardly refusal to reverse it, have made us less secure and less free. 3. Give me that old time religion. Lofgren suggests that religious fundamentalism has provided a glue for the three principles. For them wealth is a sign of God’s favor, and their God is pro-war.
Says one writer commenting on Lofgren on James Fallows' blog: “Some people don’t realize how fragile democracy really is.”
Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.