Paul Begala on the Five Stages of GOP Grief
Losing sucks—and healing is hard. Paul Begala offers advice to hurting Republicans.
The most powerful and profound words of the 2012 election were spoken by Michelle Obama: “Being president,” she said, “doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are.” So does running for president. Character is shown in adversity, and President Obama, who took office in the most adverse of circumstances; who stumbled critically in the first debate; who was hit with a depression in his first days of his term and a hurricane in the last, has shown his character. With his relentless, gifted, remarkable team he has accomplished a near-miracle—winning a second term with neither peace nor prosperity to run on.
I am deeply impressed and of course happy. For me this is the best thing since canned beer. But I want to devote this space to my Republican friends. As another president who once drove you crazy used to say, “I feel your pain.”
Now it’s time to reveal your character. A loss is tough. Sure you had some forewarning, especially after Rush Limbaugh guaranteed victory. That was when you knew things were bad. “Common sense,” he bellowed, “tells me this election isn’t gonna be close—and it shouldn’t be.” The last guy who was as wrong in a prediction as Rush was when General Custer said “I bet there’s no Sioux over that hill, let’s head over there!”
So in an effort to help, Dr. Paul the campaign psychologist is here to walk you through your five stages of political grief. And don’t worry about paying me. I’ll be reimbursed by Obamacare because a) Obamacare is not going to be repealed; and b) the GOP’s loss was a pre-existing condition.
Stage 1: Denial. Right now, you are denying you lost. Stop. You lost. You really lost. You lost like the Eagles did Monday night against the Saints. And your denials are sadder than Lindsay Lohan’s. The votes weren’t rigged (right-wingers seem to own all the voting machine companies anyway). The media didn’t hand it to Obama; after all, the Number One cable news channel, Fox, is right-wing. The Number One newspaper, the Wall Street Journal, also has a right-wing editorial slant (and is owned by the same guy who owns Fox News). The Number One talk radio show is Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity is Number Two, and Glenn Beck is Number Three. When you control all the largest media outlets, it’s time to stop grousing about liberal media bias.
I know you can’t believe you lost to Obama. Again. I can only imagine how humiliating, how disconcerting it is—especially if you live in the right-wing bubble. It’s bad enough you couldn’t beat the Kenyan-Muslim-Marxist in 2008; this time you couldn’t beat a Kenyan-Muslim-Marxist who’s still digging out from the worst economic collapse of our lifetimes.
Stage 2: Anger. My favorite. Most of the right-wingers I know run the emotional gamut from pissed-off to furious. Not a lot of smiles from you all even on the best of days. It’s not a good sign when Ann Coulter is your Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. I know you’re angry, but at whom? Mitt Romney? That would be a good start. While he had one stellar debate, he was mostly a phony and a stiff on the stump. But you knew that when you nominated him. You also knew the libs (including the Super PAC I advised, Priorities USA Action) would zero-in on his record as a layoff artist. For future reference, the only thing worse than being the incumbent president during a time of high unemployment is being a former CEO who laid off thousands of people.
But if you’re smart about it, you should be angry at your base. Sure, they’re committed (or they would be if we had a fully functioning mental health system). But they’re killing you with moderates. They nominated people who believe in “legitimate rape” and that a pregnancy resulting from rape is a gift from God. It may feel better to vent your anger at the left, but it makes no sense. They did their job; they won. Your base let you down; they led you astray. Here’s the dirty little secret: if your base is increasing in ideological zealotry and decreasing in size, it’s not a base. It’s a fringe group. Romney might be president-elect today if he had stood up to Rush Limbaugh when the radio host viciously attacked Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown law student who dared to stand up for contraceptive rights.
Stage 3: Bargaining. This might get you somewhere. Start bargaining with the voters you have alienated. Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush helped move the old Republican Party toward the strong pro-Israel position it has today—and earned the votes of some pro-Israel Americans who used to vote Democratic. So bargain with Latinos: support the DREAM Act, stop demonizing undocumented residents, return to the Bush-McCain position of supporting comprehensive immigration reform. Bargain with young people: stop trying to kill Pell Grants, stop trying to ban funding for contraception, stop demonizing gays—in fact, embrace marriage equality.
Okay, I’m plainly bargaining with you, which is not what’s supposed to be happening. I understand the GOP cannot become the liberal party. But you have to accommodate the rising American electorate. Face it: today is not the 50s you long for—(and for some right-wingers the 50s they long for is the 1850s). Latinos, African-Americans, younger voters, unmarried women: these are the pillars of the Obama majority. Why not pull one of those pillars out? Ronald Reagan reached out to blue collar, ethnic union members—and created the Reagan Democrats. Why not take a page from the Gipper?
Stage 4: Depression. This is pointless. I know you want to lick your wounds, but nobody will follow you if you simply lie on your hammock and have Jeeves the butler bring you more caviar while you whine to Lovey about the country going to H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks. Instead of sinking into self-loathing, show that you’re relevant. Cut a deal. That’s right, compromise. Put in place a sensible, moderate, long-term plan to reduce the God-awful deficit you helped to create with massive tax cuts for the rich, two wars, and a recession. Instead of going into depression, work to get us out of the one you caused.
Stage 5: Acceptance. The sooner you get to this the better. The voters rejected you. They’re just not that into you. They’re the pretty cheerleader and you’re the angry Goth kid. They are not going to date you—especially if you keep being so creepy to them. Accept that you had an historic opportunity and you blew it. Accept that in the worst economic environment in nearly a century you still couldn’t do what Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton did in milder recessions: defeat an incumbent president. And accept that you need to change. That’s right, just like in the bad teen movie, you, the angry Goth kid, can become the wholesome all-American teen. Besides, you have a terrific bench. Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Susana Martinez, Brian Sandoval. Maybe you can run one of your Midwestern governors like John Kasich or Scott Walker. Maybe a senator like John Thune—heck, he’s so gorgeous he makes Mitt Romney look like the Elephant Man. Or why not the only Republican candidate who ran in 2008 and who was never in the lead: Jon Huntsman? Huntsman has been a governor, a businessman, an ambassador. He speaks Mandarin and Moderate and could get a ton of Democratic votes.
Or not. You can stay in denial and run in 2016 on a ticket of Rand Paul and Michele Bachmann, and lose to… well, to anybody.