Primary Colours? It’s more like The Muppet Show

Written By: Ian Williams
Published: January 14, 2012 Last modified: January 14, 2012

Covering the Republican primaries is a bit like watching Fraggle Rock after dropping a tab of LSD. Until John Huntsman entered the fray in New Hampshire, it sometimes seemed like only Ron Paul had his feet on the ground – with the large caveat that for him the ground is on another world, conjured up by the fertile reactionary imagination of Ayn Rand, the “philosopher” who channelled Barbara Cartland to write bodice-rippers on the model of Mein Kampf.

As always, the sound of silence was most deafening. In the media scrum around the candidates, no one seems to have noticed that, for all his faults, Barack Obama is effectively unchallenged. He will gracefully segue to be the Democratic nominee as the Republicans eviscerate each other in public.

If Gordon Brown, or Ed Miliband, had had the courage – or perhaps chutzpah is a more appropriate term – to do what the Republicans are doing, Labour would probably be in power now. If they had ­actively disavowed Tony Blair and New Labour along the way they could have ­benefited from the reflex vote.

But Republicans have not so much ­disavowed the two Bushes who represent their party’s last three terms in the White House as made them non-persons. They are not mentioned at all.

That neatly allows Republicans to smear Obama for the financial crisis and for the bailouts at the end of George W Bush’s presidency.

There is some justice there, since Bill Clinton’s term actually espoused much of the ethos of voodoo economics and deregulation, but it took the junior Bush to strip regulators of power and introduce the tax cuts that paved the way for the parallel financial and fiscal crises that now hamper any attempts at recover. Ironically, George Bush senior is a non-person for opposite reasons – because he opposed voodoo economics and actually increased taxes.

Two years ago, it would have been difficult to believe that a party could be re-elected on a platform that effectively vetoes any effective regulation of the banks and companies that caused the crisis. Despite their differences, that is what unites almost every Republican candidate. The sleight of hand is so audacious it is admirable: through the Tea Party, the “Grand Old Party” has channelled the understandable rage against big banks and big business against the only institutions that can challenge them – “big labour” and big government.

By invoking abstractions such as “freedom” and “enterprise” with the amplification that huge corporate donations give them, Republicans drown out their actual practice, which is to pander to any business interest that wields a cheque. Set against a faith-based minority that votes in the Republican primaries, they can get away with this. Their voters do not believe in climate change, evolution or Obama’s American citizenship, so they are addressing an audience already strongly inclined to credulity, to denying the evidence of reality. So Obama was responsible for the bailout and it was government interference in the free market that forced banks to give mortgages to the feckless poor (a coded terms for black) that brought about the crisis are easily digested counterfactuals.

However, the secret of their success is that they meet no ideological opposition. Since Bill Clinton, most of the media and most of the Democrats also hold the truths of the free market to be self-evident and scarcely attempt to defend against the attacks on regulation, unions, or government action. On the core issue, the economy, they have abandoned the field of battle to the conservative enemy.

Instead of raising Obama’s standard on the right of every American to affordable healthcare, his genuine achievement of a healthcare bill was accompanied by a welter of bureaucratese that had all the appearance of guaranteeing insurance companies’ profits rather than being a charter for citizens dying in their thousands because they could not afford medical services. Polls showed that Americans were prepared to support a single payer system of national or state insurance. What they got was a mandatory requirement to pay some of the most bloated, corrupt and inefficient companies around.

That being said, those on the far left who do know different are as off-planet as the GOP. Far too many are prepared to overlook Ron Paul’s determination to do away with any social welfare provisions at all and give him elbow room for being opposed to foreign wars. He would of course have opposed American involvement in the Second World War as well, but then some of the American left would have picketed the Normandy Landings as foreign intervention.

Their insignificance means that this will have negligible electoral effect, but their detachment from real politics in the US has deprived America of a politics able to combat the Chicago school. It is significant that a bunch of anarchists around the Occupy Wall Street protests have done more to push Obama into egalitarian eloquence than the whole Noam Chomskyite left academia.

And despite those who prefer Ron Paul to Barack Obama, the President did get millions of uninsured on the rolls. He did end the war in Iraq. He has appointed a consumer protection head in the teeth of Republican opposition. On every count, even when disappointing, his record has been better than anything likely from the gaggle of reactionary Muppets on the other side.

So, while any diagnosis of the state of American politics based on the primaries is necessarily gloomy, the prognosis is not so bad.  The Republicans are busily making themselves unelectable, while Obama has a real chance to win. And he is by far the least worst option. What is more, if he and the Democrats can get their act together, it is possible that they might stave off disaster in Congress by tapping sane voters’ ­revulsion at the ugly face of American ­conservatism revealed in the ugly contest that is the Republican primary race.

About Ian Williams

Ian Williams is Tribune's UN correspondent