Frank Rich On The Dark Tone Of The Republicans' Response To The State Of The Union Address

Frank Rich and Rachel Maddow discussed the very dark tone coming from the Republicans' response to the State of the Union address, what their strategy is going to be for the next two years and whether it's going to resonate with most of the
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Frank Rich and Rachel Maddow discussed the very dark tone coming from the Republicans' response to the State of the Union address, what their strategy is going to be for the next two years, and whether it's going to resonate with most of the voters.

MADDOW: The State of the Union is being lauded as a statement of centrism. I think that‘s fair. And I also think that President Obama‘s version of the center is turning out to be a much more Democratic place than where Bill Clinton found the center, big “D” Democratic. What do you think about that?

RICH: I agree with you. I wish I could debate it with you, but I think—he‘s always been a centrist, but a little bit to the left of the triangulated Clinton. And he held firm on that last night. And the problem of the Republicans is they‘ve moved so far to the right. You know, your Eisenhower analogy, we forget that the John Birch Society, which still exists and is supporting the Tea Party, called Eisenhower a communist dupe --

MADDOW: Right.

RICH: -- back when he was in the White House. So—

MADDOW: You know, you look at the Republican responses last night, and the thing that surprised me the most, I‘m not too much of a tone person, I tend to be the person who reads the transcripts rather than watches the tape, but the Republican responses were really dark, almost apocalyptic, I thought about, you know, America being a failure, nothing working now, nothing‘s going to work, we‘re reaching this point of no return.

Does that reflect a decision by Republicans to just sort of try to goose their base and not try to go for a broader audience? What did you make of that?

RICH: It certainly doesn‘t go for a broad audience. What‘s really odd about it is they‘ve ceded Reagan optimism to Obama.

MADDOW: Yes.

RICH: So, last night, he could talk about corporate profits hitting new records. He could talk, perhaps excessively about the beginnings of a recovery, but in a slightly over-optimistic way. And meanwhile, it‘s the apocalypse at hand and everything‘s gone to hell, and, you know, we‘re going to be Greece before we know it, and not the musical, the country.

MADDOW: Right. Because if we were “Grease” the musical, I would become a Republican.

(LAUGHTER)

MADDOW: I would sign up.

RICH: I‘m with you on that.

MADDOW: When the president made the case for investment, right, he didn‘t just say—he made the case about cutting spending, we need to take deficits and debt seriously. And that‘s fine.

But then he made what amounted to half the speech-long pitch for the government actually spending some money and doing stuff, for the role of government in investing in the economic health of the country, and investing—as the Republicans are correctly pointing out—does mean spending in a lot of cases.

Was that sort of a core principles case for what Democrats think government is good for?

RICH: Yes, he really pulled it off. I think it was—finally, he was making this narrative about the government, or finally for recent times, whereas the other party was just saying, let‘s cut, let‘s do nothing.

I mean, Paul Ryan‘s speech basically said, except for national defense, and apparently, preventing abortion, there was no point to a federal government. You know, he even said that the safety net could turn into a hammock for the lazy and indolent Americans who don‘t deserve it. So, it was the most stripped down, pared down bunker version of government versus a—you know, a centrist version of essentially Democratic governance, that was not the era of big government is over or anything like that.

MADDOW: I was—the hammock line was sort of an eye opener. I think that‘s the thing that people are going to take away from this Republican response, if they take away anything. And that‘s a really specific attitude, that we‘ve seen from some parts of the Republican Party. We saw it when they not only were saying no to unemployment benefits, but we saw some Republicans float the idea of drug testing people if they want to get unemployment benefits.

We saw one Republican member of Congress saying that unemployment insurance was turning us into a nation of hobos. Sharron Angle talking about how it was taking away, essentially, our competitive spirit.

The sort of “kick the unemployed” thing, how does that work? Why—they keep doing it, so I think they think it works.

RICH: They must think it‘s a throwback to sort of the Reagan era‘s welfare queen rhetoric.

MADDOW: Yes.

RICH: But it doesn‘t work now, because, first of all, that welfare world is over, because it was ended under Clinton. And now they‘re referring to, what, 16 percent of Americans, when all said and done, who are really unemployed, and including those who have stopped looking for work. So, they‘re really hitting people‘s, you know, cousins and uncles and brothers and sister across the board demographically, you know, white and black, every conceivable walk of life. So, I think it‘s stupid.

MADDOW: Well, one of the—one of the—I think there‘s a divide, in political science. And some people think that—in political science think that politics matter. And some people think that really politics is sort of a show that we put on, like a circus for the entertainment of the population. Sort of a way we get our yayas out about the culture war.

But, really, the thing that determines the elections is the unemployment rate. The number of people that are unemployed determines whether or not the party in power stays in power. Do you—what do you think on that?

RICH: I tend to feel that‘s the case. But if you have politics that are really nutty and a party that moves as for to the right as Republicans, it could, you know, vary that equation. But the economy is going to always be the most determinative factor.

But, you know, when you have people like Michele Bachmann walking around and giving these, you know, crazy remarks, the politics can have a factor—be a factor, too.

MADDOW: So, the lame-duck session was good for the president in terms of his approval ratings. It made not just the base happy, but the rest of the country sort of much—pretty happy with him, too. I think the State of the Union was, at least in the short-term, well-received, and the dueling Republican responses were—I think, in the long run, are not going to help them out.

I, sort of, feel like the Democrats are on a roll. If the

Republicans are going to come back again this year, how are they going to do it? What are they going to do that‘s going to turn this—turn their fortunes around?

RICH: I don‘t want see any idea out there that is moderate or that people could rally around. It‘s all about just balancing the budget and repealing Obamacare. If you look at any poll, health care isn‘t even a top priority, or health—you know, dealing with the health care bill or rescinding it or whatever doesn‘t even really register.

MADDOW: People see it as a done deal.

RICH: Yes.

MADDOW: Yes.

RICH: And so—and furthermore, you have the other problems of the Republican Party, those who are running for the presidency, seriously are not, are almost all to the right of even the Republican leadership in Congress.

MADDOW: Right.

RICH: So they‘re going to have a lot of internal fighting as they‘re pulled further and further away from centrism, if you will.

MADDOW: I wonder, one of the things that will be interesting to watch is whether the Republican powers that be try to keep the Republican jockeying for the nomination, try to keep it kind of quiet and inside the party for a while because they think those politics aren‘t going to play with independents.

RICH: I think they‘re trying, but unfortunately, everyone has a contract with FOX.

(LAUGHTER)

MADDOW: Yes. That‘s right. It all happens out loud.

RICH: Yes.

MADDOW: That‘s the big problem.

Frank Rich, “New York Times” columnist and someone I really enjoy talking to—thanks for being here, Frank.

RICH: Nice talking to you.

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