The American Prospect‘s Paul Waldman has done us all a great favor by reading and interpreting the latest batch of “campaign books” from prospective 2012 presidential candidates, including Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee and Tim Pawlenty. And after duly noting the relatively low political value of such books, and the low standards governing the genre, he offers some key insights about what they reveal about the Republican zeitgeist of the moment:
Despite their surface differences, the books raise some common questions. How do we answer key policy questions? How important is God to our politics? Is Barack Obama merely wrong about everything, or is he actively attempting to destroy our country? Just how great is America?
Actually, that last question is something the candidates all agree on: America is stupendously great, awesomely great, so great that “great” doesn’t begin to describe its greatness — and Obama just doesn’t get it.
Aside from a peculiar emphasis on “American exceptionalism” that appears to exempt this country not only from healthy self-doubt but from ordinary logic and the lessons of human history, notes Waldman, the books are dominated by an equally unreflexive attitude towards the 44th president, who is always wrong:
In their attempts to understand Obama, the candidates again and again reach the conclusion that when Obama does or says something they like, he’s either shrewdly hiding his real intentions or has been cornered by political reality. When he does or says something they don’t like, he has revealed his true self. So Romney can claim, without any supporting evidence, that “another of President Obama’s presuppositions is that America is in a state of inevitable decline,” just as Palin avers that Obama “seems to see nothing admirable in the American experience.” How do they know this? Well, they just do. None of the candidates provides any quotations in which Obama apologizes for America because he never actually has. And don’t bother bringing up the hundreds of speeches in which Obama has lavished praise on this country, because as Romney says, “President Obama is far too gifted a politician to say in plain words that America is merely one nation among many.” However, if we take some things Obama has said out of context and make a series of absurd leaps in logic to arrive at the worst possible interpretation of them, then we will learn the truth.
America is great, and Obama wants to destroy it. That’s the overriding theme of proto-candidates working in the most expansive format they’ll ever use.
As it happens, I was involved as a “ghost” in a “campaign book” for a candidate running against an incumbent president in 2004, and I can tell you that George W. Bush’s sins and shortcomings were in the background, not the forefront, of the policy-heavy tome. And while the book was full of invocations of America’s greatness, they were deployed not to congratulate Americans for their superior virtue, but to encourage them to meet common challenges, most of which have yet, seven years later, to be seriously addressed.
It’s an open question as to whether GOP presidential candidates can make it all the way through the nomination process–and for the winner, all the way to November of 2012–on a message that essentially tells Americans there is nothing wrong with their society that firing Barack Obama can’t fix. I guess if you get all your information from Fox News, that’s a credible argument. But for everyone else, a positive agenda that goes beyond telling a suffering nation and world that they need to shut up and salute the flag (and oh yes, cut taxes and regulations allegedly afflicting their economic masters, from whom all good things come) might prove necessary.