Every four years a president is elected and someone like me excoriates the press corps covering the election for failing to focus on the big issues that should have mattered. This year is different. This year's big issue is the economy, and no one's going to overlook it. But major resources still need to be devoted to the fringes.
If you ask me, the Todd Akin "legitimate rape" eruption was both fringe and fundamental. As GOP big shots tried to shame Akin out of his Senate race, the Republican platform committee approved an abortion plank that gave Akin everything he could have asked for in the way of an absolute prohibition—except the one thing only God could give: female sexual apparatus that actually functions the way Akin likes to think it does.
Akin's faux pas got a lot of media attention, though too little of it pushed past Akin himself to the hypocrisy of the Republicans who tried to throw him off the back of the wagon. And almost no attention was paid a day or two later to a Republican who's far more wild-eyed than Akin but not necessarily any battier. That's county judge Tom Head of Lubbock, Texas, who a day or two later let it be known he'd like to raise an army to repel the United Nations troops he expects President Obama, if reelected, to be sending into his county. "He's going to make the Constitution irrelevant. He's got his czars in place that don't answer to anybody," predicted Judge Head, who doubles as Lubbock County's chief of emergency planning. The judge said Obama will "try to give the sovereignty of the United States away to the United Nations. What do you think the public's going to do when that happens? We are talking civil unrest, civil disobedience, possibly, possibly civil war." Wishing for a force of "seasoned veterans," Head allowed that "we may have two or three hundred deputies facing maybe a thousand U.N. troops. We may have to call out the militia."
Tom Head is a Republican nobody, but it was his outburst, on the heels of Akin's, that got me thinking. A book could be assembled that consists entirely of statements made by the foes of President Obama that are so ignorant, antiscientific, demagogic, and/or delusional they take your breath away. And this book would put into focus for me—with all due respect for the economy—what now seems to be the election's most urgent question: will America turn the federal government over to a party in thrall to its knaves and crackpots? The GOP convention did nothing to reassure me. Judge Head, needless to say, was nowhere to be seen. But I doubt that many of the delegates who whooped and hollered as the Man With No Name read the riot act to an empty chair would have hissed in dismay if a genuine Texas lawman asked for a few "seasoned veterans" to come down and defend the Republic.
At some point I found myself actually feeling a little sorry for David Brooks. Brooks is a moderate Republican who pleads for a high-minded debate of big issues. His August 20 column in the New York Times, "Guide for the Perplexed," framed the election this way: "Entitlement spending is crowding out spending on investments in our children and on infrastructure. This spending is threatening national bankruptcy . . . If you believe entitlement reform is essential for national solvency, then Romney-Ryan is the only train leaving the station . . . If Democrats can't come up with an alternative on this most crucial issue, how can they promise to lead a dynamic growing nation?"
I wish Brooks's question were the only question. I wish the only thing worth debating about the Romney-Ryan express were its destination and not its passenger list. But the party of Romney and Ryan is also the party of Todd Akin. It's the party of Newt Gingrich ranting about Saul Alinsky and Donald Trump ranting about birth certificates, of Mike Turzai, the Pennsylvania house majority leader who proclaimed this summer, "Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win Pennsylvania—done!"
If you care to look, you might even find Judge Head on that train leaving the station, hidden away in the baggage car. Some would say that train's almost all baggage.
The lofty theme the pundits would prefer to deal with—does the Republican Party deserve the chance to govern?—needs to give way to a question a lot more basic: is the party fit to govern?
Once you've decided, as I have, that the duty of competent journalism is to confront this question, the blatherings of the op-ed columnists can seem exasperatingly off point. For instance, last week in the Tribune, Dennis Byrne exposed the "canard that mainstream Republicans agree with Akin's views that all abortions, even those in cases of rape and incest or to save the mother's life, must be banned." Byrne cited a recent Pew poll that showed only 22 percent of Republicans agree with Akin—which is to say only 22 percent agree with Paul Ryan, their vice presidential nominee, and with their party's platform. Which tells me, though not Byrne, that the party's been hijacked by an ideologically extreme minority. I await a column by Byrne explaining (a) why the Republican Party wasn't hijacked, or (b) why the rest of us shouldn't care if it was.
Above Byrne's column—with its emphasis on Republican disagreement—was one by George Will that contradicted him. Will observed that the Republican Party "under the beneficent influence of the tea party has never been more ideological or more ideologically homogenous." (Will didn't explain why a party so ideological should run the country. Maybe he doesn't think it should.) He went on to fault Obama for immaturity and to suggest Mitt Romney could win in November by weaning away from Obama voters "who like the idea of him but not the results of him. As Holman W. Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal astutely writes, 'Obama's great political talent has been his knack for granting his admirers permission to think highly of themselves for thinking highly of him.'"
Again a superior mind was missing the point. If Obama supporters think highly of themselves, it's because they measure themselves against the birthers and bigots, the jaw-dropping nincompoops like Todd Akin and boastful connivers like Mike Turzai, who are still so stuck on the idea that Barack Obama is president that they can't move past it. Mitt Romney cracks jokes about birth certificates because in the company he keeps those jokes still get laughs.
On the same day that Byrne's and Will's columns were published in the Trib, Steve Huntley laid out in the Sun-Times the voters' choice as simply one between "the affable guy who can trade jokes with you in the unemployment line or the stiff character who would actually put you back to work." I agree with Huntley that if Romney can make the election seem as simple as that he'll win; but the election isn't that simple, and no one knows it better than Huntley, who is transfixed by the vicious and slimy campaigning. Where Huntley falls a little short, in my view, is in his single choice of the Democrats as the culprit. In recent columns devoted to exposing the iniquity of Democratic attempts to distract voters from Obama's "bankrupt economic policies," Huntley's written of "Democratic smear tactics," "baseless drivel," "bilge," the "sultry season of mudslinging," "dirty small ball," "Mediscare falsehoods," and "gutter politics."
His language and obsessiveness make it a little harder than it should be to distinguish Huntley, a seasoned pundit, from some of the foam-lipped Obama haters. I do not think we can expect Huntley to ask hard questions about the state of the Republican Party.
I turned from Huntley to the New York Times and finally came across a piece of writing worth reading. It was Brooks again, but something had gotten to him. He'd obviously awakened laughing or screaming and then written a column called "The Real Romney." Brooks called his piece "the definitive biography and a unique look into the Byronic soul of the Republican nominee."
"Romney was a precocious and gifted child," Brooks wrote. "He uttered his first words ('I like to fire people') at age 14 months, made his first gaffe at 15 months and purchased his first nursery school at 24 months. The school, highly leveraged, went under, but Romney made 24 million Jujubes on the deal."
And so forth. And so on. "I am not normally a David Brooks fan, at all, but this is hilarious," someone commented on Facebook. "Whoa," commented someone else. "He's being bitchy to EVERYBODY lately."
Brooks, who soon after reverted to form, was probably just having a good day. Some say he wasn't so much making fun of Romney as he was chiding the standard media critique of Romney. Whatever. His giddy, bitchy scorn came as a tonic. When high-minded pundits blow smoke they blind themselves. A nasty election deserves nasty commentary.