As the Republican Party navigates this perilous chapter in its history, the organization begins to resemble — more and more closely — the desperate, lonely protagonist in “Life of Pi.”
If you haven’t seen or read it yet, it’s the story of a guy whose personal brand becomes so broken that he has to literally rename himself, swapping “Pi” for “Piscine.”
Pi barely survives a terrible shipwreck, only to land in a lifeboat with a tiger.
Only then it turns out maybe he was just lying to himself the whole time.
Maybe he was the tiger, threatening and terrifying himself.
Are you listening, John Boehner?
Let’s recap for a moment the events of the last two months.
The Republican Party ran cranium-first into the reality that modern Americans are no longer creeped out by gay people, have no interest in revisiting the issue of contraception (or rape), and are in growing numbers not Caucasian.
That’s the shipwreck, see?
And then there’s this little life-raft, which is fiscal conservatism. That’s safe, right? I mean, if nothing else, Americans are hungry for a party that will balance the books, and run a (sorry, can’t resist) tight ship.
Only it turns out there’s this tiger.
Which is the decades-ago discredited fantasy that if you just keep cutting taxes, government revenue will magically blossom and erase all deficits.
And then there’s the presto-change claim that you can actually increase spending on the military — one of our largest single budget items — while somehow embracing austerity.
In “Life of Pi,” the main character actually winds up abandoning his life boat, leaving it to the tiger. He builds a second, cobbled-together raft.
That moment has arrived in our national politics. John Boehner is sitting on a rag-tag collection of half-ideas, slogans, pitches and click-your-heels-together three-times arguments.
All of which boil down to a hard-line defense of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.
These are notions that 65% of Americans have no interest in, which in modern politics amounts to a landslide. Even a majority of Republicans want the rich to pay taxes comparable to those they paid during the Clinton years.
Which isn’t to say that Republicans have lost this fight. Americans are clearly worried about deficits and the national debt. And they’re wide open to the idea that the government needs to shrink.
Getting to that argument and that set of ideas will take time. Republicans first need to take control of their lifeboat again and then get that lifeboat to shore. They need coherent, math-based budget proposals — not ideological manifestos.
(In the movie, Pi finds an instruction book full of hilariously useless survival tips. For Republicans, on their raft, that book is “Atlas Shrugged.” Or maybe it’s Grover Norquist’s pledge.)
The alternative to facing reality isn’t pretty, as Pi can attest. He wound up on a carnivorous island, after all. It looks safe but you wind up a pile of bones.
Are you listening, John Boehner? Mitt Romney is on that island. So is John McCain.
Democrats already control the high ground on racial demographics. They dominate American youth culture, on issues ranging from homosexuality to religious multiculturalism.
They have a party full of rock stars and thinkers and, yes, accomplished community organizers, from the Clintons to the Obamas.
Republicans, by contrast, have the Bush family in hiding, a lingering romance with Ronald Reagan — who left office in 1988 — and a penchant for cannibalizing anyone who doesn’t obey the tiger.
The one thing they have left is this lingering, stubborn reputation for caring about and understanding the economy. They should be grateful. It’s amazing that the hurricane of George W. Bush didn’t sweep that away, too.
But Barack Obama is now presiding over a slow and steady recovery, with unemployment edging downward and optimism edging upward.
And in the fiscal cliff debate — like the debt ceiling debate last year — it is Obama who sounds moderate and seasoned and grounded. His poll numbers, not surprisingly, are the highest they’ve been in three years.
Are you listening, John Boehner?
The answer to all this isn’t all that complicated. Republicans need to face, once and for all, that the revolution is over.
The grand drama that began with Barry Goldwaters messianic flame-out in the 1960s is finished. Richard Parker is heading into the jungle, and he’s not looking back.
Translation: The GOP is never going to remake America into the “real” America. We’re not going to get whiter, or more Christian, or less gay, or more rural. We’re not going to abandon every last scrap of the New Deal.
So what’s left then for Republicans? Governing. Being grown-ups. Helping to run the country. Protecting the borders. Tweaking the economy.
You know, the boring business of stewarding the world’s largest economy and most important democracy.
Which means coming up with plans that acknowledge some cold, hard realities (i.e. everybody‘s going to wind up paying more taxes, and losing government services that really help people), while embracing the America we’re stuck with and not some Greatest Generation flashback nirvana.
It means shucking the Apocalistas and the people who are trying to get us all to buy gold and the wild-eyed dreamers who think we’ll all be okay if we just stockpile enough handguns.
As Pi can attest, this kind of journey isn’t easy. But it’s also not a time for messing around. You have to get busy when you’re on a raft and the sharks are circling.
You have to take some risks, tame the tiger, get control of your boat.
Otherwise, the next In Box essay about Republicans may wind up using the TV series “Lost” for its metaphor. And nobody wants that.