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CPAC and the Dumbing Down of the Republican Party

February 26, 2009

Even as this year's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) kicks off today in Washington, the transformation of the Republican Party into a cartoon is almost complete. In the same week in which Bobby Jindal extinguished his own rising star in a now legendary response to President Obama, the GOP's know-nothing every man Joe "the Plumber" Wurzelbacher will be among the CPAC headliners offering wisdom to the right-wing faithful.
But it's not merely the leading lights of the GOP but its very ideas which make the party so ripe for parody. From its denial of evolution and global warming to the rewriting of the Great Depression and economics 101, today's Republican Party proudly proclaims its ignorance of basic science, history and plain common sense. The GOP is fast moving from the "Party of No" to the "Party of Huh?"
To be sure, this year's CPAC agenda reads like a right-wing conspiracy theorist's to-do list or the latest installment of the Left Behind series. As Huffington Post noted, in addition to Joe the Plumber and ersatz Sarah Palin documentarian John Ziegler, other events include:

"Al Franken and ACORN: How Liberals are Destroying the American Election System"; "The Presidential Banquet with Master of Ceremonies: Rep. Michelle Bachmann"; "Bailing Out Big Business: Are We All Socialists Now?"; A book signing with Ann Coulter; "Media in the Obama Era: Is Journalism Dead?"; "The True Cost Of Global Warming Hysteria"; and "Will Congress Take Your Guns?"

But if those sessions constitute what candidate Obama often termed "silly season," Republicans are deadly serious about positions and messages which fly in the face of scientific consensus and historical fact.
Consider the GOP's response to the economic meltdown and President Obama's proposed remedies. Despite the inescapable truth that the national debt tripled under Ronald Reagan and doubled again under George W. Bush, conservatives and their media accomplices still peddle the myth of Republican fiscal discipline. With no sense of irony (or decorum), Wall Street Journal editor and CPAC presenter Stephen Moore on Tuesday labeled Obama's economic recovery initiatives, "fiscal child abuse."
More laughable still, the new Hoovers of the GOP including John McCain and Mitch McConnell announced that Roosevelt's New Deal made the Great Depression worse. Others, such as Rep. Steve Austria (R-OH) went so far as to blame FDR's programs launched four years after the 1929 stock market crash for causing it in the first place:

"When (President Franklin) Roosevelt did this, he put our country into a Great Depression," Austria said. "He tried to borrow and spend, he tried to use the Keynesian approach, and our country ended up in a Great Depression. That's just history."

This month's 200 anniversary of Charles Darwin's birthday again highlighted the Republicans' rejection of his theory of evolution. While polls shockingly reveal that as few as 35% of Americans subscribe to Darwin's theory, campaign '08 showed many evolution deniers among the ranks of the GOP presidential hopefuls. During a debate in May 2007, three of the 10 White House wannabes raised their hands when asked if they did not believe in evolution. And while George W. Bush and John McCain played dumb on the question of teaching public school children so-called intelligent design, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee actively tried to undermine evolution instruction in his state.
Despite the long-standing scientific consensus in support of Darwin's theory, the campaign against it continues undiminished by Republican leaders, creationist front groups and GOP rank-and-file alike. Even after their devastating defeat in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case ended the teaching of intelligent design in a Pennsylvania school district, Darwin's foes create new fronts in their war on the theory of evolution. Just three weeks ago, the seven creationist members of the Texas school board won a partial victory even as they replaced the state's 20 year old requirement to teach students the "strengths and weaknesses" of all theories. In Louisiana, Governor Bobby Jindal signed a law which "allows local school boards to designate supplemental curricular materials that science teachers may use for lessons on topics such as evolution, global warming, and cloning." (In response, the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology decided to move its 2011 conference from New Orleans.)
Of course, while many movement conservatives feel compelled to attack evolution as a matter of deep religious faith, on a wide range of issues manufacturing uncertainty is an essential Republican political strategy.
For decades, Republicans have deployed the same rhetorical weapons of "uncertainty" and "strengths and weaknesses" first used against Darwin to wage battles across the gamut of public policy. From global warming denial and bogus links between abortion and cancer to faith-based obstructionism of emergency contraception, the infamous 2002 Klamath Basin salmon kill and so much more, conservatives manufactured the appearance of uncertainty to halt government action. (One Cheney ally described the vice president's role in the salmon episode, "He felt we had to match the science.")
Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe's famous 2003 charge that global warming is "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people" could be applied to any almost public health or environmental policy opposed by the Republican Party. (For an excellent analysis of the strategies and tactics of GOP denialism, see Chris Mooney's book, The Republican War on Science.)
In the wake of their November disaster and President Obama's popularity, some conservatives have started their own 12-step program to resuscitate their movement. Patrick Ruffini, for example, today decried the "Joe the Plumberization of the Republican Party." (Alas, Ruffini's prescription, "I love Newt's emphasis on finding 80/20 issues and defining them in completely non-ideological terms," suggests he is stuck on step 1.)
But while the Republicans are down, they are never out. And their war on science and basic facts, so central to their politics of grievance and business agenda, remains a threat both to a growing 21st century economy - and American social harmony. Republicans are not merely making caricature of their own party, they risk dumbing down America.
UPDATE: Almost on cue, the audience at CPAC roared in approval when Cliff Kincaid, head of a conservative group Accuracy in Media, suggested that President Obama is a communist, and that Obama was not born in the United States. Meanwhile, Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison continued to propagate another GOP myth that "every major tax cut we've had in history has created more revenue."

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Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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