I did not watch Thursday’s Republican debate as a liberal, an intellectual, a historian. I am all those things. But as I watched TV in my mother’s hospital room, I kept wondering, “What are these men saying to her?” Instead of seeing Republicans or politicians or media stars, I saw four men, some around my age, some younger, talking to Americans, but not to all Americans. I wondered, are they talking to us?
They were certainly talking to “Reagan Democrats”. Whoever this group might be now, the candidates offered love and an opportunity to vote for them. Nothing in particular, though, just the claim that if you liked Reagan, you’ll like us.
All four talked especially to veterans. Romney, Santorum and Gingrich asserted that veterans deserved special access when they leave the service to the most prized goods in our society: jobs, education and housing. Ron Paul was more hesitant; he doesn’t like special treatment for any group. The only veteran on stage made a very different offer – to drastically reduce the need for most of them, by ending foreign wars and foreign bases.
I was struck by how many kinds of Americans were ignored in the debate. Rick Santorum pointed out how the others, and the Republican Party generally, ignored working-class Americans. But if you belong to a union, or believe that workers have the right to be unionized, you would not have been happy on Thursday. Mitt Romney equated saving the 70,000 American jobs at General Motors with giving the company away to the UAW. He characterized the members of the National Labor Relations Board, who enforce the laws which protect workers, as “labor stooges”.
If you are gay, you might as well not have listened to the debate. Gay Americans were not mentioned, except to be permanently excluded from real marriages and real families. The candidates thus stuck with their previous negative statements about civil unions and the rights of domestic partners. None of them contradicted Gingrich’s statement in December to a voter who asked about gay issues: “You should be for Obama.”
If you liked the new national health care legislation, because it would cover the 30 million Americans without health insurance or because it allows young adults to stay on their parents’ policy until age 26, there was nothing for you. Romney carefully sketched a plan that would insure only those who already have insurance. Otherwise all four made it clear that it was wrong to change the way those groups of people are treated in the free market.
If you are black, or believe that racial stereotypes should not be the basis of public policy, then you might have hoped that somebody would distance themselves from Newt Gingrich’s insistence in the previous debate that it was conservative and patriotic of him to single out black food stamp recipients for a special scolding about their work ethic. You might still be upset that the audience hooted at the African American Fox News moderator, Juan Williams, when he asked about what Newt had said. The next day Gingrich went further, saying “the idea of work seemed to Juan Williams to be a strange, distant concept.” Apparently true conservatism means being able to criticize African Americans, without fear of being contradicted.
The Republicans were certainly not talking to the millions of poor Americans, without jobs, without proper housing, without insurance. When Gingrich taunted President Obama as the “food-stamp president”, he was also taunting those Americans who need food stamps to feed themselves and their families. All four promised jobs galore, but when? After they are inaugurated a year from now, then many more months until their policies supposedly take effect. Meanwhile, nothing but condescension for becoming dependent, for not having the proper work ethic, for being unsuccessful. Nothing different than their congressional Republican colleagues, who opposed extending unemployment insurance and continuing the payroll tax cut. Nothing at all but a rosy future.
The four would-be Presidents did talk to the 69 million Americans who voted for Barack Obama. We were told that we picked a man who does not share real American values, who is “taking away the rights of our citizens” (Romney), who is “the most dangerous President of our lifetime” (Gingrich). We are obviously stupid or un-American ourselves.
When you add it all up, it seems as if the Republican presidential candidates were talking to a minority of Americans, telling them they were the only true patriots. The rest of us, poor, gay, black, unionized, believers in science, supporters of a fair tax system, we were disdained. If you are happy that our government protects the voting rights of minorities, the environment we live in, and the safety of our products and jobs and food, if you are proud of the changes in American politics over the past 50 years, then the Republicans are not talking to you. So how will any of them be a President to all Americans?
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 24, 2012