Will GOP get last laugh?

November 17, 2006|By Niall Ferguson

In addition to being a brilliant satirist, Sacha Baron Cohen was once a rather good historian. In fact, he is by far my most successful former student. I can still remember how well he used to play the part of a studious Cambridge undergraduate, taking me in completely. With the character of Borat, however, he has gone one better. He has taken in America.

The amazing thing about his new film is how brutally it ridicules the United States. Borat's victims are all hapless Americans, mugged by Oxbridge irony. The rodeo crowd that howls down his rendition of a spoof Kazakh national anthem, sung to the tune of "The Star-Spangled Banner"; the Southern architect and preacher who invite him to dinner only to have him insult their wives; the Pentecostal worshippers whom he mocks by pretending to shake and speak in tongues; the politically incorrect frat boys who give him a lift in their van and, in their cups, expose their own sad misogyny - all of them trustingly welcomed a man whom they took to be a genuine Central Asian journalist, and all of them ended up abjectly humiliated. And yet American audiences roar with laughter. The film is a big hit.

The explanation is, of course, that nearly all of Borat's victims are Republicans. God-fearing, often Southern and just a little unused to tricky foreigners, such people were supposed to be the Republican Party's core support. Suddenly, the rest of the nation is laughing at them - and outvoting them. It's as if blue America is in on the joke being played on red America by Mr. Cohen. And that's why the popularity of his movie was a harbinger of the drubbing red-state America was going to suffer at the polls.

Of course, we shouldn't get too carried away. There's an argument that last week's vote marks the turning of a tide that began to run the Republicans' way back in the days of Richard Nixon. The Nixonian trick, honed to perfection by Ronald Reagan, was to build a Republican coalition that included Southern Democrats as well as blue-collar workers who felt disillusioned with the liberal movement of the 1960s. Under Karl Rove's direction, this strategy seemed to reach its zenith, as some conservative-minded Latinos and blacks were also persuaded to vote GOP. According to Mr. Rove's critics, all this has now unraveled, leaving the Grand Old Party with nothing but the South. Mr. Rove's "base" has become a mere rump. The moral majority has been reduced, definitively, to a minority.

This goes too far, because the law of unintended consequences is at work here.

The relatively decent turnout last week (for a midterm, at least) suggests that many disillusioned Republican and independent voters voted Democrat in reaction to the Bush administration's blunders. But the Democrats they backed were often so-called Blue Dogs, such as newly elected North Carolina Rep. Heath Shuler, a former pro football player who opposes abortion and gun control. In other words, conservative Democrats.

Ironically, however, the losers included some relatively liberal Republicans, while the big winners in Washington will be the old-style Democrats from the Northeast and California who are still the party's leaders. In the House, Henry A. Waxman, for example, can be expected to go after the big oil companies when he takes charge of the Government Reform Committee, and Barney Frank will have hedge funds in his sights as chairman of the Financial Services Committee.

A crucial role will be played by Charles B. Rangel, likely chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, a fierce critic of the Bush administration's tax cuts and stalled Social Security reform. Other key Democrats - John D. Dingell, the autoworkers' friend, and Collin C. Peterson, a staunch defender of farm subsidies - are likely to make the president's life difficult on the issue of free trade, hammering the final nails in the coffin of the moribund Doha Round of talks to liberalize global trade.

Whatever anyone says today about the joys of bipartisanship, and even if the Democrats resist the temptation to launch muck-raking congressional inquiries, the result is bound to be more, not less, political polarization. President Bush will never be able to "reach out" to a House speaker such as Nancy Pelosi, least of all over Iraq. He'd rather see his father's realist pals, James A. Baker III and Robert M. Gates, reach out to Iran and Syria.

Yet for precisely these reasons, the Democrats could quite quickly alienate the voters they managed to win over last week - or rather, the voters the Republicans managed to drive away. And two years of deadlock between an unpopular president and an unreconstructed Democratic Party establishment could provide the perfect backdrop for John McCain's presidential campaign in 2008. After all, Mr. McCain has repeatedly criticized the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq war without doing anything on domestic politics that a Blue Dog would so much as growl at.

The French have an expression for it: reculer pour mieux sauter - take a step back so you can take a big leap forward. If it turns out that Republicans merely took a step back in 2006, the better to jump ahead in 2008, then the joke will be on Borat.

Niall Ferguson is the Laurence A. Tisch professor of history at Harvard University. This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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