Column: Sam Parker on Rational Actors and Rabid Extremists

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By Sam Parker

Ballots won't look much different this November than they have for the past 150 years, with the same two parties bold faced and sitting in opposition at the top of each election, but just as many of the most insidious shifts in America's history have been subtle, there is no mistaking a sea change in our politics.The choice may still read Democrats vs. Republicans, but the election is now simply between rational actors and rabid extremists. I have no illusions that there was ever a heyday of hand holding in Washington; the two major parties have always fought, whether over the New Deal, segregation, Vietnam, or President Clinton's health care and penis initiatives. But polarization is a whole different thing than one major party refusing any compromise that does not align with its narrow, aggressive vision of America. The Republican Party, already neoconservative under George W. Bush, was hijacked by the Tea Party before the 2010 election. Of course, their anti-spending gospel and invasively conservative stances on abortion and women's health issues are a false evangelism; they had no problem investing taxpayer money during the Bush administration, don't actually care about the deficit, and their stance on rape probably wouldn't jive with Jesus. Unfortunately, pointing out hypocrisy doesn't change much. The Republicans' newfound rigid devotion to such far right rhetoric and policy has produced such gems as Todd Akin's "legitimate rape," Paul Ryan's vampire budget, and Clint Eastwood's admonishment of furniture. It has also led to a budget stalemate, no deal on taxes, a near-catastrophic destruction of health reform, and perhaps most damagingly, a total shift of the turf on which we debate. Prior to this year, I was lukewarm on President Obama. I know he was dealt a bad hand, but he also hardly risked his chips on many of the issues that he promised to address. The stimulus was too small and too reliant on tax cuts; Guantanamo Bay wasn't closed; Obamacare, while a big step, had no public option and gave too much away to insurers. My complaints weren't unique, either; much of the left was semi-disappointed with the man that had (perhaps unfairly, though it was much of his own doing) been hailed as a new shining hope for a liberal America. Then along came the Republican primary, with batty Herman Cain, zoo-obsessed Newt Gingrich, Bush-on-helium Rick Perry, and future televangelist Rick Santorum showing us scarily serious alternatives. Along with eventual nominee, the weathervane known as Mitt Romney, the debates offered a clear-eyed view of the cloudy future promised by a GOP victory. Romney, seemingly the most reasonable candidate (he used to be kind of liberal!), has proven himself either inept or idiotic. Beyond his conventional GOP views, he has blundered his way through foreign policy like a prep school kid on a spring break abroad. After botching his Europe trip, he Tuesday ripped the Obama administration for a tweet sent out by an under-siege Egyptian Embassy, trying to make political points out of what would end up being the death of four Americans. It was remarkable in its cravenness, and rightly ripped by everyone. Never has President Obama looked so good. Never has a Democratic Party, which has caved to the use of Super PACs, protecting corporate criminals and agreeing to slice the budget, seemed so progressive. It should replace its iconic donkey mascot with a brain, to emphasize its fundamental differences with the GOP. Yet while this change may win Obama and Senate Democrats the election, it is ultimately a false positive. Drowning out the truly liberal voices of the party with a shout of "it could be worse" will only, slowly, serve to move the party and government toward those extremist positions, which have become the de facto alternative. But that's something to deal with after the election, once Americans keep the crazy at bay.

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