Daddy Bears, Mommy Bears

In Tom Schaller’s talk with Republican pundit-strategist-talking heads, media consultant Alex Castellanos discusses how the election was good news and bad news for Republicans:

There was some good news this election and that is, it takes a lot to elect a Democratic president in this country. How much worse can it get? To elect a Democratic president, you have to have an unpopular Republican brand, you have to have an unpopular Republican administration, you have to have gas that’s hit five bucks a gallon, you have to have a housing bubble pop. And then that’s still not enough, then you have to have an economic meltdown. McCain was tied coming out of the convention until the economy melted down. And that’s still not enough. Then you have to have a Democratic candidate who moves toward the center and proposes tax cuts for 95 percent of Americans, who says oil drilling might be OK, who says that what the unpopular president is doing in foreign policy and defense is terrible but he’s going to keep the same people. The secretary of defense, General Petraeus. Even Bush’s policy of preemption in Iran. Barack Obama said he would do anything, anything, anything to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

That’s the good news. [But I also said that] if we took refuge in [how hard it is to] elect a Democratic president, it would be false comfort. Because we still don’t know where the Republican Party is going. And I don’t think our problems are ideological. I think America is still a center-right country and that’s why Republicans frankly hung in there. Look, the president is a daddy-bear job. He’s the guy who’s supposed to lock the door at night, bring in the paycheck for the country; he’s the head of the American political household. That’s why Republicans have done well electing presidents and why Democrats have done well electing the mommy bear to Congress and to the redistributing job. Redistributing public money to help people. Our problem is generational. And by that I mean, and I think Reihan hit it on the head, it’s a very different country. What used to be this silent majority is now the silent minority and the old Republican appeals are not enough.

Wait, aren’t mommy bears supposed to be the more protective of their cubs? Either way, the archaic gender roles grafted here upon government responsibilities are profoundly paternalistic, very “nanny state.” Whether nanny is nursing the citizenry or is locking the door and guarding it with a shotgun, if this kind of framing of the role of government is at the base of Republican thinking, then the party has bigger problems than it acknowledges.

Castellanos’ description of the conditions and the pragmatic centrism that pushed Obama to victory is not innaccurate; it’s just not complete. He neglects the significant voter turnout, higher than in any previous election in the last 50 years, and the importance of citizen involvement in the process. Citizens were not looking to install a new set of parents. We were trying to make government more responsive to our basic needs, to use government as a means to an end, a collective tool for larger social benefit. I don’t know if that translates into a necessary “center-left” or “liberal” mandate. But voters want health care, jobs, economic stability, and a secure and mature-minded foreign policy. We can’t get it at Wal-Mart. The private sector in general — from the health insurance industry, through the finance and investing industries, to, say, Blackwater — is sorely lacking as a provider of our economic and national security; indeed, much of the private sector has been turning to government for help, too, sucking the public coffers dry and putting us further in debt.

We turn to government for help because it is the one institution which we have some control over; theoretically, it is answerable to us. Eight years of blustering, chest-thumping incompetence has finally convinced the “low-information” segment of the voting public (at least for now) that what we really need is a serious-minded competent leader who knows how to listen, to evaluate conflicting data, and to act strategically. I don’t rule out the future possibility of another cowboy-affectin’ politician riding in on a white horse of xenophobic paranoia; nor am I blind to the instances when Obama has done some chest-thumping himself during the campaign season. Indeed, presidential campaigns will continue to have some element of the penis-measuring contest, the gender politics of which candidates of either sex will feel compelled to negotiate. For now, however, this weird psychological aspect has succumbed to more pressing needs.

As the country becomes more ethnically and culturally diverse, as gays and lesbians assert more political power, as issues of gender become more recognizably fluid, as certain baby boomers with their 1950s hang-ups about the proper roles Mom and Dad fade away (i.e., die off), as more men become nurturing fathers and more mothers become principal “bread-winners” — maybe, just maybe, the United States of America will grow out of its current Daddy Complex. Are either Democrats or Republicans remotely prepared for that?

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