I'm submitting a memo to my bosses at Rolling Stone this morning, asking for permission to skip all coverage of the Republican primary season from this point forward. Why? Because Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann have just summed up the entire Republican storyline with perfect precision, through their respective responses to Hurricane Irene. There's really not much left for any pundit to add, after this weekend's quips.
Michele Bachmann says Hurricane Irene is God's way of telling Washington that it is spending too much.
For his part, Ron Paul says hurricane relief isn't the responsibility of the state and we should stop using tax dollars to rescue people. Apparently we should go back to our year-1900 disaster policies, which included watching 6,000 people die in a hurricane that hit Galveston, Texas.
What else does anyone need to hear? There are two powerful wings of the Republican Party heading into 2012, and these two comments sum them up perfectly.
The Ron Paul camp believes government has no role at all.
The Michele Bachmann camp also believes that government has no role at all - but she differs from Paul in that she learned this through personal communication with the Almighty.
This is what the Republican debate is going to boil down to: a question of authority.
If you believe the Bible is the only book you ever need to read, you'll vote for Bachmann or Santorum, or maybe Rick Perry.
If you think the sacred text is The Road to Serfdom, you'll vote for Ron Paul (or, Rick Perry hopes, maybe Rick Perry).
Both rhetorical strategies are heavily dependent upon apocalyptic imagery. From the Road to Serfdom crew, we're going to hear a lot about the impending socialist takeover and an imminent international financial collapse tied to government/Fed spending policy.
On the Biblical side, we're going to hear the same worries about communist revolution, as well as dire predictions of natural disasters sent our way by an avenging Creator bent on punishing America for everything from gay marriage to Quantitative Easing.
The Christian candidates are also influenced by rapture theology. Both Bachmann (who once led a Rapture-ready "We are in the last days" prayer ) and Perry (who famously has a relationship with my old pal John Hagee Perhaps America's most powerful Rapture/End Times preacher) have dabbled seriously in Left Behind belief systems, under which the righteous will be whisked away to heaven just before God comes down to earth to kick ass and dispense justice to unbelievers via End-of-World troubles like wars and natural disasters.
All of this helps explain why Republican rhetoric in this election season often coincides with eerie frequency with End-Times preachery. If you want to see what either of the two apocalypse-merchant wings of the Republican Party will be squawking about tomorrow, all you have to do is check to see what End Times fanatics are freaking out about today.
One of my favorite sites for this sort of thing is the news page of raptureready.com. It's all there: hurricanes, earthquakes, bailouts, concerns about disorder in the Middle East, global warming denial, etc.
I think we're all worried about the future of this country - I know that serious concerns about another financial crash are not limited to Republicans or End-Timers - but my guess is that unless such a crash actually happens in the next year or so, this "End is Nigh" rhetoric is going to sink the Republicans next fall.
As we've seen with the career of Glenn Beck, there's a built-in problem with building a following upon fear of imminent catastrophe. In order to succeed and keep people interested, you need to constantly up the ante, with warnings that are more and more desperate and future nightmare scenarios that are more and more graphic. Even the most brilliantly nutty rhetoricians, and Beck is one of the best ever, ultimately run out of ways to keep twisting the nightmare plot forward while keeping at least a little toe of credibility in the real world.
This slate of Republican candidates is very passionate when it comes to warnings and predictions of doom and yearning for the days before antibiotics and universal suffrage, but not nearly as eloquent when it comes to expressing ideas like hope, reassurance, enthusiasm and forward-thinking, which is ultimately what the majority of voters tend to go for. I'm as worried about the future as anyone, but if your message for the next generation is buy gold, stock up on canned food, and duck, I don't see how you can win a general election. But stranger things have happened in this country...