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The Best Paragraphs In Sunday’s Newspaper

January 20, 2008

The week is summed up quite nicely here.

The conservatives who hyperventilated about the Democrats’ explosion of identity politics seemed to forget that Mr. Romney also dragged Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. into this campaign — claiming that he “saw” his father, a civil-rights minded governor of Michigan, march with King in the 1960s. The point of Mitt Romney’s invocation of the race card was to inoculate himself against legitimate charges of racial insensitivity; he had never spoken out about his own church’s discrimination against blacks, which didn’t end until 1978. Instead, the tactic ended up backfiring. Late last month The Boston Phoenix exposed this touching anecdote as a fraud. George Romney and King never marched together.

I don’t mean to pick on Mitt Romney — though heaven knows it’s a thriving national pastime — but his retro persona exemplifies much of the present Republican dilemma. It’s not just that the old Reagan coalition of social, economic and foreign-policy conservatives has fractured. A more indelible problem for the Republicans in 2008 is that their candidates are utterly segregated from reality as it is lived by the overwhelming majority of their fellow Americans. The G.O.P. presidential field’s lack of demographic diversity by age, gender, ethnicity or even wardrobe, let alone race, is simply the leading indicator of how out of touch its brand has become.

Mr. Romney’s victory in Michigan was most of all powered by a lie far more egregious than his bogus appropriation of King. In a state decimated by unemployment, he posed before auto plants like an incongruously well-groomed Michael Moore, vowing to fight to bring back every last lost job. His plan? He’d scrap the modest new fuel-efficiency standard passed with rare bipartisan unity in Washington last month and give Detroit a $20 billion fund for energy “research” (not to be confused, he claimed, with a bailout).

Among Mr. Romney’s rivals, Mike Huckabee alone made affinity for economically struggling Americans his calling card. Unfortunately, Huckanomics is more snake oil. All federal taxes would be replaced by a national sales tax that despite its Orwellian name (the Fair Tax) would shift more of the burden to middle- and low-income Americans.

For the other Republicans, the downturn has been an occasion to recycle the mindless what-me-worry optimism of the pre-1929 G.O.P. presidents and Wall Street potentates since relegated to history’s dustbin. When Maria Bartiromo, moderating a CNBC Republican debate in October, asked the candidates if the nation was heading into a recession, Fred Thompson found “no reason” to think so and pronounced both the near and longer-term economic future “rosy.” Rudy Giuliani extolled the glories of freedom and the market before promising that “the sky’s the limit.”

Even the White House halfheartedly acknowledged the home-mortgage fiasco ahead of this crew. Instead, the Republican candidates have largely clung to illegal immigration as Domestic Crisis No. 1, to no particular point beyond alienating Hispanic voters.

The election is more than nine months away, and already this obsession is blowing up in the G.O.P.’s face with non-Hispanic voters, too. Far from proving the killer app of 2008, illegal immigration is evaporating as a national cause. In the nearly identical findings of The New York Times/CBS News and ABC News/Washington Post polls this month, it ranks near the bottom, the top issue for a mere 4 to 5 percent of voters. The economy (at 20 to 29 percent) leads in both surveys, closely followed by the total of those picking some variant of “war” and “Iraq.”

As if it weren’t crazy enough for Republicans to lash themselves to the listing mast of immigration, they are nonplayers on the issues that do matter most to voters. The more the economy tanks and steals Americans’ attention from a relatively less violent Iraq, the more voters learn that the Republicans have little to offer beyond their one-size-fits-all panacea of extending the Bush tax cuts.

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