Requiem for a Maverick by the incomparable Matt Taibbi
It sounds strange to say, but this election season may have done to the word "Republican" what 1972 did for the word "liberal": turned it into a poisonous sobriquet that no politician with bipartisan aspirations will ever again welcome. The Republicans didn't just break the party — they left it smashed into space dust. They weren't just beaten; the very idea of Republican conservatism was massively rejected in virtually every state where large chunks of the population do not believe in the literal existence of a horned devil, and even in some that do.
They lost in every way imaginable, on every political front. The symbol of their anti-gay crusade, Colorado congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave, was beheaded. The party that had made so much hay running against Mexicans saw noted anti-immigration crusader Bill Sali of Idaho ousted along with several other members of the Immigration Reform Caucus. The GOP's grasp on the so-called "moral values" issue likewise went up in roaring flames, with Rep. Vito Fossella of Staten Island the poster child — his morals were once so perfect that he refused to be seen with his gay sister, and now he's a national joke, bounced after being caught drunk driving and having unprotected, babymaking sex with a married Air Force officer.
The ironic thing is that the destruction of the Republican Party was a two-part process. Their president, George W. Bush, did most of the work by making virtually every mistake possible in his two terms, reducing the mightiest economy on Earth to the status of a beggar-debtor nation like Pakistan or Zambia. This was fucking up on a scale known only to a select few groups in history, your Romanovs, your Habsburgs, maybe the Han Dynasty, which pissed away a golden age of Chinese history by letting eunuchs take over the state. But John McCain and Sarah Palin made their own unique contribution to the disaster by running perhaps the most incompetent presidential campaign in modern times. They compounded a millionfold Bush's legacy of incompetence by soiling both possible Republican ideological strategies going forward: They killed off Bush-style neoconservatism as well as the more traditional fiscal conservatism McCain himself was once known for by trying to fuse both approaches into one gorgeously incoherent ticket. It was like trying to follow the recipes for Texas 10-alarm chili and a three-layer Black Forest chocolate cake in the same pan at the same time. The result — well, just take a bite!
I witness the whole pathetic mess summed up a week before the election, on a baseball field in Quakertown, Pennsylvania. The campaign has scheduled an outdoor rally, with a joint appearance by McCain and Palin, at this crucial moment in the race. But now there is driving snow and sleet, trees downed on roads all around, and the campaign — with no alternate indoor plan — is forced to cancel the event at the last minute. I watch as locals keep pulling up to the field, looking for the candidate, a lonely, rain-soaked "Country First" banner whipping back and forth above the stage. The whole scene captures the essence of the McCain run perfectly: Instead of a plan, they had an endless succession of dumb ideas scrapped at the 11th hour in favor of even dumber ones.
Like millions of Americans, I watched Barack Obama's victory on Election Night in a state of amazement. The only thing that gave me pause was the question of what kind of country this remarkable figure was now inheriting. Some of the luster of Obama's triumph would come off if the American presidency were no longer the Most Powerful Office in the World but simply the top job in a hopelessly broken nation suffering an irreversible decline.
Of all the problems facing this country by the end of the Bush years, the biggest is the absence of a unifying national idea. Since the end of the Cold War, America has been grasping left and right for an identity. We tried being a "world policeman" in Somalia, which didn't work so well. We tried retaining our Cold War outlook by simply replacing communists with terrorists. We created two bubble economies that blew up in our faces, and headed into 2008 a struggling capitalist state with a massive trade deficit and an overtaxed military that suddenly had to ask itself: For the supposed world leader in the community of nations, what exactly is it that we're still good at? Who are we, and what do we represent to the peoples of the Earth here and now — not in 1775 Concord, or 1945 Paris, or 1969, from the surface of the moon?
When Obama took the stage in Grant Park as president-elect, that question was answered. We pulled off an amazing thing here, delivering on our society's most ancient promises, in front of a world that still largely thought of us as the home of Bull Connor's fire hose. This dumbed-down, degraded election process of ours has, in spite of itself and to my own extreme astonishment, brilliantly re-energized the American experiment and restored legitimacy to our status as the world's living symbol of individual freedom. We feel like ourselves again, and the floundering economy and our two stagnating wars now seem like mere logistical problems that will be overcome sooner or later, instead of horrifying symptoms of inevitable empire-decline.
For this to happen, absolutely everything had to break right. And for that we will someday owe sincere thanks to John McCain, and Sarah Palin, and George W. Bush. They not only screwed it up, they screwed it up just right.
Dec 3, 2008
Requiem for a Maverick by the incomparable Matt Taibbi