But I think it also goes a bit deeper. The biggest flap was over his condemnation of Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to end Medicare as we know it - followed quickly by his apology and embrace of the same. Long before Newt's particular brand of flip-flop though, the entire GOP was back-tracking, equivocating, and supporting it - depending on the day in question and the audience. You would assume that much of this waffling is a result of being able to read the polls about Ryan's plan (Americans hate it!) and the shellacking they got when they rolled it out at town hall meetings recently.
But what's a Republican to do? David Roberts names their strategy "post-truth politics."
For decades Republicans have single-mindedly pursued a few core goals: reducing taxes on the wealthy, dismantling the post-war social welfare state, and freeing corporations from regulatory restraints. Sometimes that has meant short-term compromises and half-measures, sometimes it's meant exploiting culture war resentments, sometimes it's meant a pose of moderation (compassionate conservatism). Very often -- almost always -- it's meant couching the agenda in other terms, since it is, if you poll it directly, wildly unpopular with the public. Americans want to tax the rich more, protect entitlement programs, and put tighter rules on corporations.
Republicans thus talk about "taxes" and "spending" and "regulation" in the abstract, since Americans oppose them in the abstract even as they support their specific manifestations. They talk about cutting the deficit even as they slash taxes on the rich and launch unfunded wars. They talk about free markets even as they subsidize fossil fuels. They talk about American exceptionalism even as they protect fossil-fuel incumbents and fight research and infrastructure investments.
In short, Republicans have mastered post-truth politics. They've realized that their rhetoric doesn't have to bear any connection to their policy agenda. They can go through different slogans, different rationales, different fights, depending on the political landscape of the moment. They need not feel bound by previous slogans, rationales, or fights. They've realized that policy is policy and politics is politics and they can push for the former while waging the latter battle on its own terms. The two have become entirely unmoored.
The problem is - post-truth politics can work pretty well at winning elections. But it sucks when it comes time to govern. That's what Ryan's plan is attempting to do. And its exactly why its failing so miserably (not to mention causing HUMONGOUS headaches for presidential candidates).
Steve Benen explains why this same problem has ended the work of the Senate's bipartisan "Gang of Six" as well as any other "gang" the Senate has attempted over the last couple of years. And he ends with this:
The “structural issue,” then, is Senate Republicans putting elections above governing. Bipartisan talks have to fail, or the GOP’s strategy falls apart. The goal isn’t to strike deals, it’s to kill deals and blame Dems for a lack of bipartisanship. Create favorable electoral conditions so the GOP can win is the only thing that matters. Period. Full stop.
As the Senate Republican leader has admitted, “Our single biggest political goal is to give our nominee for president the maximum opportunity to be successful.” Is it any wonder, then, that bipartisan negotiations keep falling apart?
The truth is that the Republicans have nothing - at least nothing the American public is willing to buy. So you can count on the fact that for the next year and a half, we'll be treated to attempts to obfuscate and divide. Its their only hope.
The contrast with Obama couldn't be clearer. Here's one of the best summaries I've read in a long time. (h/t to Blackwaterdog).
At the White House correspondents dinner, while Obama was whipping the crowd into laughter at Trump’s expense, there was a steely edge to the president’s voice.
Watch it again. Obama is chuckling, but his stare could cut glass.
It is easy to forget sometimes, with high unemployment and the constant criticism from Republicans, that Obama is a master political pugilist.
He’s the same man who outdueled and outlasted Hillary Clinton and the establishment Democratic Party. He is battle-tested, hardened and, most damaging to his opponents, presidential.
The race for the presidency, despite all its quirks and entertainment, is a game for adults. That’s what Obama wants to remind voters every day.