The Republican Party and the credibility gap

In the screenwriting business, the toughest challenge is pushing plot: writing the expositional dialogue that drives the story forward and keeps the audience up to speed.

It’s a thankless task: if the dialogue is too hokey, the audience will hiss; too subtle, and you risk leaving people behind. Worst of all is the scrutiny it attracts. Exposition freezes the action and the viewer has nothing to focus on save the words being spoken, so they’d better be up to scratch. Credibility is everything.

At this point in the US electoral cycle, the Republican candidates for President are pushing plot. The nation is facing the most crippling financial crisis since the 1930s (economists, in unguarded moments, intimate that it might even be worse), Americans are losing their jobs and their homes, and no one knows (not really, not honestly) how to turn things around. Unfortunately for Republicans, the recession hit in the eleventh hour of the Bush administration, which GOP mythology told us had solved America’s economic problems with the fiscal silver bullet of tax cuts. As if this wasn’t enough to be getting on with, Republicans find themselves in opposition with a Democrat President pouring a pocketful of nickels into the policy jukebox and replaying all the old liberal favourites, ‘Tax and Spend Two-Step’, ‘Big Government Blues’, and ‘That Free Market, She Done Me Wrong’.

Against this backdrop, Republicans need what political consultants call a ‘narrative’. They need to use this period before the election kicks off proper to push their exposition explaining what went wrong and what they want to do to get things back on track. Americans don’t want empathy. They don’t care whether a candidate goes to church or goes huntin’ or what they did in the Vietnam War. They’re not looking for someone to have a beer with. They want answers. Ideas. Solutions. They want a vision but a vision with trajectory: it’s not enough to say ‘America’s best days lie ahead’. Voters want to hear ‘America can get back on the road to success and here’s how we’re going to do it’.

Republicans should be honing their plot. Financial institutions, with the tacit encouragement of government, gave out too much credit. Individuals, with the tacit encouragement of financial institutions and government, spent too much money that they didn’t have. Government, with the not-so-tacit encouragement of practically everyone, spent vast sums while pretending it could do so without raising taxes. All three fantasies collided when the credit bubble burst in 2008. Now the economy is paying the price of the shared delusion of easy credit, booming entitlement programs, and 90%-mortgages-for-all. Now is the time to return America to fiscal responsibility, reducing the size of government but doing so in a way that doesn’t exacerbate the unemployment numbers.

This used to be easy for Republicans. Economic centrism was their métier. Democrats clung to abstruse theories while the GOP took the more measured, suck-it-and-see approach. To the casual observer of the Republican primary process, particularly the televised intellectual circuses that constitute the debates, the GOP has forgotten its role as the voice of fiscal pragmatism. This is why the expositional dialogue coming from most of the candidates isn’t working. It might please the hardcore fans but the mainstream audience are walking out and asking for their money back.

The top billings are as guilty of this as the walk-on roles. When a crank like Ron Paul compares the Federal Reserve to drug addiction, advocates eliminating the income tax (and replacing it with nothing), and shuttering a roster of basic programs Americans rely upon, the average voter rolls his eyes and says ‘Ron Who?’ When poll-leading contenders want to end all federal student loans or  can’t remember which agencies they’d abolish, Mr and Mrs Swing Voter head for the exits.

Glib soundbites aren’t going to cut it (cf. Herman Cain’s 9-9-9) and nor is Fannie and Freddie-bashing (I yield the floor to the Gentlewoman from Minnesota) or a hankering for the salad days of 2004 when pushing social issues translated into a ten point lead (Rick whatever-you-do-don’t-Google-his-surname Santorum).

With a very few exceptions (so few, one can briskly name them: Romney, Huntsman, Johnson), the current GOP field is a line-up of has-beens, never-weres, and dear-God-anyone-buts; a retinue of dogmatists; a demolition squad of political reality; a support group for the economically illiterate; an audition for the next big hire at Fox News; a Hillsdale undergraduate seminar group that clearly hasn’t done the reading.

Contrary to what people like David Frum argue, this isn’t about RINOs vs Tea Partiers. The problem with the GOP’s leading lights isn’t their unswerving conservatism. Ronald Reagan was an out-of-his-tree right-winger – but he was also right. Rick Perry could advocate replacing the Constitution with the Road to Serfdom and the Bill of Rights with the Ten Commandments and win a 50-state landslide if he had a credible vision for reviving the economy.

And that’s the problem. It’s not ideological obscurantism but the credibility gap that is killing the Republican Party. The mood music is off-key. The exposition is creaky. The audience isn’t buying any of it. If the GOP doesn’t get in some new writers their eventual candidate is going to bomb and Americans will plump for the sequel to Hope and Change.

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