It's a testament to America's political diversity (refreshingly so) that venerable bastions of conservatism continue to flourish even within the Obama-friendly confines of eastern academia.
Such was my thinking last night, at the University of Pennsylvania, as I wandered into the august quarters of St. Anthony Hall - a fraternity seemingly populated (at least on this occasion) by comely young men dressed in blue blazers and beige chinos, with rep ties carefully knotted below square jaws. Of course, there were sartorial exceptions; one gentleman, clad in Madras sport jacket and pink pants, appeared to have time-traveled from the late 1950s, and indeed I felt the overall sensation of having stepped back to a bygone era, perhaps to the apogee of the American century, when the WASP elite swilled martinis and spent weekends on horseback, chasing foxes. Or perhaps I was simply fixated on the oil paintings, which depicted red-coated sportsmen on horseback, chasing foxes.
Anyway, all the frat brothers, joined by a fair number of alum, had eagerly gathered to hear their guest speaker: Tucker Carlson, the feisty conservative libertarian contrarian who is probably best known for his on-air jousts with liberals on CNN and MSNBC, and who quite resembles the comely young men of St. Anthony Hall despite being 20 years their senior. And by the time he bounded to the podium with a bottle of Perrier, he well knew that his listeners were friendly, having just heard a resonant sssssssssss at the mention of Barack Obama's name during the introductions.
Not all the brothers are conservative, of course, but apparently most feel somewhat out of sync with the current national zeitgeist (from the latest bipartisan NBC/Wall Street journal poll: most Americans by a 2-1 margin trust Obama, not the GOP, to lead us out of recession). And clearly they felt bonded to Carlson, who almost prides himself on being out of sync.
The brothers signaled their approval whenever he said things like "I'm not on the liberal side" and "I'm a radical small-government guy." And they signaled again when he described Washington D.C. as an Obama haven populated with "African Americans, young people, and rich white liberals - that's everyone in town but me." (Although I should note that the brothers did not signal approval by clapping their hands; rather, they hewed to the St. Anthony Hall tradition of snapping their fingers. Whenever Carlson got off a good line, suddenly we were in a forest of crickets.)
I got the impression that the brothers were eager to cut loose and indulge their frustrations, to gorge on some rhetorical red meat at the Democrats' expense. And Carlson did tantalize from time to time. He lampooned Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel for being so infamously profane, and that got people going. And he launched into a long digression about Hillary Clinton, who once gave the finger to a heckler who had given her the finger (true story, he insisted), and who gets up in the morning and addresses herself in the mirror by talking like a man (Carlson was joking about that one, and the joke went over well). His passing reference to Nancy Pelosi prompted dismissive laughter. His attacks on the "demented" big-government bailouts ("capitalism without failure is like religion without sin, it's stupid") prompted nods of approval.
But Carlson, ever the contrarian, didn't pander to his listeners. He said of the president, "I've always liked Obama. He's a decent, friendly, personable, intelligent guy. I think that now." He said of George W. Bush, "Watching him give a speech was like watching a drunk cross a street. You weren't sure whether he would make it across." Even when invited, by several questioners, to rail against the media, he instead gave several nuanced responses, lamenting "the enormous financial pressure (that) should be a concern to everybody," and insisting that all news consumers should seek out viewpoints with which they disagree (if you fail to do that, he warned, "then you become a jerk").
And even though Carlson shared his fear that Obama and the Democrats might be spending America into ruin, that Obama is intervening in the economy even though "this is a guy who has never run a Jiffy Lube" (prompting the alumni in the rear of the room to say, "right" and "truly"), he reserved his most scathing remarks for one target only:
The Republican party. And for long stretches of time, nary a finger clicked.
"There's no countervailing argument to what Obama is doing. The Republican party has basically disappeared...It's not good to have one dominant party, and one lame, completely pathetic party. But that's where the Republicans are now. Their problems aren't just momentary, it's deeper than that. The party doesn't know what it is...The Republicans have failed in truly every sense. They've been rejected at the ballot box and on the ground. They are officially losers."
The party, he noted, has generally been a loose coalition of interests tied together by "shared dislikes" such as communism, Bill Clinton, and Islamic extremists. "Can it come together over a shared dislike of Barack Obama? Problem is, he's popular and he's kinda hard to hate. That's not an organizing principle."
Ideally, of course, the party will rediscover its identity or craft a new one, but Carlson sees only one comeback scenario in the foreseeable future: "In order for the Republicans to be a winning party again, Obama has to blow it in a big, big way. Until that happens, they'll be out power." And the problem with that scenario is, "the Republicans have no control over it."
He did opine that defeat can be "a clarifying experience. All pretenses have been stripped away, and you're forced to confront basic questions. They're forced upon you. That's where the Republicans are."
Actually, Carlson never did get around to suggesting a new GOP message that might click with the electorate. Reviving the party's small-government credo is problematical, at a time when the American majority favors greater government intervention in, and regulation of, the markets. Indeed, Carlson did a thing or two to say about his fellow Americans.
"People like free stuff" from the government, he said, recounting his interviews with Iowa farmers who consider themselves conservatives - but who are really "socialists" who depend on government handouts. Indeed, he said, "without those subsidies, they wouldn't be there. You get elected when you give people stuff. It's depressing."
But he didn't seem to depress the brothers. They liked his iconoclasm. They liked it when he popped some Nicorete gum, his method for staving off cigarettes. They liked it when he confessed about being fired a few times (from CNN in 2005 and MSNBC in 2008). They liked his throwaway line about how, if the media gave people exactly what they wanted, torture and pornography would dominate. They liked his instinctive embrace of the status quo, his willingness to thumb his nose at the current mantra of change ("Things worth having are never created in an instant, ever"). They liked that, especially. It was enough to sustain them. At the end they clapped (rather than snapped) and spilled happily from the building, their gold blazer buttons glinting in the lamplight. It was Obamaworld out there on the cobblestones, but they seemed content.
Steve Schmidt, the Republican strategist who helmed the '08 McCain campaign, today floated his own ideas on how the Republicans could redefine their identity. In a speech to the gay Log Cabin Republicans, he made the startling suggestion that the GOP should endorse gay marriage.
He said, "I would rather be in the Democrats' shoes than ours. Their coalition is expanding. Ours is shrinking. Their vote share is increasing among voter segments that are growing. Ours is not." Of particular concern, he said, is the GOP's deficit among younger voters - and the fact that these voters, who will increasingly dominate the electorate, are tolerate about gay rights, whereas the GOP agenda is not.
Schmidt thinks that the party needs to move with the times: "I believe Republicans should re-examine the extent to which we are being defined by positions on issues that...will become over time, if not a consensus view, then the view of a substantial majority of voters....While we shouldn't carelessly dismiss the importance of enduring traditions, we should understand that traditions do change over time in every society."
And he insists that, pragmatics aside, this policy shift would be the right thing to do: "It cannot be argued that marriage between people of the same sex is un-American or threatens the rights of others. On the contrary, it seems to me that denying two consenting adults of the same sex the right to form a lawful union that is protected and respected by the state denies them two of the most basic natural rights affirmed in the preamble of our Declaration of Independence - liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, I believe, gives the argument of same sex marriage proponents its moral force."
Schmidt didn't address how the GOP could embrace this issue will still retaining the loyalty of its Christian conservatives, but suffice it to say that at least somebody in that party is trying to think outside the shrinking box.