Walter Rodgers

What Dems need for GOP debate and Election 2012: A Shakespearean Falstaff

The Democrats need a Falstaff to point out the absurdities of GOP positions. The views of Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, and Michele Bachmann would give him plenty of comic fodder.

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What the Democrats now need more than anything else is a Falstaff working for them. Election 2012 looks scary, what with President Obama’s low approval rating and the economy unable to figure out which way is north.

A Sir John, or “Jack,” as his fictitious friends called this character in Shakespeare, might lift their spirits – and serve a strategic purpose.

Falstaff is a boor, true, but he also points to the obvious and makes people laugh at humanity’s absurdities. For that reason, he’s loved by Shakespeare’s characters and the playwright’s audiences.

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Democrats have become so intimidated by the thunder on the right that they have totally forgotten what an effective tool laughter and lampooning the actions and behaviors of others can be in politics.

The comic is certainly not missing in the GOP today. Here we have Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the leading presidential candidate among the Republicans, who once speculated that his state just might secede from the Union. But now Mr. Perry’s decided he wants to be president of the same Union he’s so fed up with.

Conservative columnist David Brooks of The New York Times recently called Perry a “loudmouth” on NPR. And never mind that Karl Rove, the former political adviser to President George W. Bush, has written off Perry as “unpresidential.” This Bible-thumping swaggerer from Texas has quickly become the Republican front-runner, a darling among evangelical Christians.

The GOP favorite had previously been former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. He’s working to convince voters he’s an average guy like the rest of us. To prove it, Mr. Romney is demolishing his $12 million Pacific beachfront home in La Jolla, Calif., to replace it with something nearly four times as large. (He has since said he is only doubling the living space; the garage and basement apparently don’t count.)

I can really empathize with that, as can millions of other Americans who saw their homes disappear recently in the recession.

But what has tickled me silly among the Republicans is Michele Bachmann’s energy plan. She says unlocking America’s natural resources – more of that wonderful coal and oh-so-accessible shale oil and offshore petroleum – will bring down gas prices at the pump to $2 a gallon.

I really want to believe her. But then I heard the thunderous laughter coming from behind the closed doors of the boardroom at ExxonMobil as they contemplated gas at such a discount.

Every comedy show – and that is the way the Democrats should be portraying the competition – needs a magic act, and the GOP is not to be found wanting there. In the tradition of Harry Houdini, Republican congressional leaders have persuaded the American public that taxing the rich is bad for the economy and granting generous tax breaks to obscenely wealthy oil companies is sound economics.

That sleight of hand is right up there with sawing a body in half on stage. Republicans in Congress have convinced a whole raft of middle-class voters to accept a tax policy that favors the rich and runs contrary to the interests of middle-income tax-payers. And the public laps it up under the impression that any taxes kill jobs. If that’s true, what about the billions in cash that corporations are hoarding even as they still don’t hire?

But I have to come back to the Texas governor if I’m thinking of best carnival barker. He’s persuaded an impressive number of Americans he is truly a conservative who wants to preserve the past while surreptitiously running on a frighteningly radical platform.

Check it out! He wants to repeal the 16th Amendment of the Constitution abolishing the federal income tax (though he seems to be backing away from that now). He wants to scrap the 17th Amendment and return the power to elect US senators to state legislatures. He wants a new constitutional amendment giving our so highly esteemed and competent Congress the power to overturn US Supreme Court decisions by a two-thirds vote.

Perry’s radical list goes on, including one giving the federal government power to control a woman’s body, outlawing abortions by constitutional amendment.

Falstaff never encountered the Internet, but if he had, he might have also come across this popular tweet, exposing a big weakness of Democrats:

“There was just a 5.8 earthquake in Washington. Obama wanted it to be 3.4, but the Republicans wanted 5.8, so he compromised.” That kind of introspective gibing could keep many Democratic voters at home next year.

If there is one certainty in politics, it is that politicians can survive just about anything but being joked about. Recall President Jimmy Carter – attacked by a “killer rabbit” while fishing.

The winner of the 2012 election may well be the candidate who succeeds in getting voters to laugh loudest at his or her opponent.

But that person will also have to watch to make sure the joke is not reversed. Falstaff, after all, bemused Prince Hal until this prince became a king and abandoned his vain, if humorous, companion.

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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