The Disturbing Pessimism from GOP Candidates

Pity the Party of Lincoln. Gone with the wind is the idea that all men are created equal. Today’s GOP is dedicated to the proposition that we are going to Hell in a hand basket. And if you’re Rick Santorum, you mean that literally.

In the upcoming book “Showdown: The Inside Story of Obama’s Fight to Save His Presidency,” David Corn recounts a brainstorming session before Obama’s speech on deficits. Obama had just returned from Chile, and he was mad.

“I’m going to other parts of the world and they’re showing me investments in infrastructure and innovations in education,” Obama vented to his advisors. “They’re willing to spend money on that. The Republican budget reflects a fundamental pessimism. It says that to get the deficit in line, we can’t afford to be as visionary as these countries, and we can’t be optimistic because they’re not willing to let an extra penny come from high-income people.”

That, from the president’s mouth, is why he will win in November. In a fight between “Yes we can” and “managed bankruptcy,” Americans will always choose optimism that empowers them.

I’d love to claim that’s my idea, but I read it in another book called “Learned Optimism.” Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, got sick of studying depression and turned his attention to figuring out why happy people avoided depression.

Happy people, he found, use specific, positive language while depressives use pervasively negative language. I’m wildly oversimplifying his findings, but his book is useful in figuring out what happened to the Republican Party that used to have a lease on the White House because it owned optimism. Remember “Morning in America”?

If you listened to the Chicken Little Republicans at the Arizona debate, it’s mourning in America. Goodbye optimism, hello managed bankruptcy.

When he wasn’t scraping his congressional record off his shoe, Rick Santorum was telling the Republican Party how bad off we all are. The real problem for Republicans came when CNN’s John King asked about the auto bailout. Santorum tried to agree with Mitt Romney on “what I believe is the best way to resolve these types of problems, which lets the market work, constructive capitalism, as Governor Romney was talking about in his days at Bain Capital, and destructive capitalism,” said Santorum.

Here’s where it got interesting:

“And that means pain,” said the former Senator. “I understand that. But it also means limited government and allowing markets to work because we believe they’re more efficient over time.”

And as much as Romney road-tested his Reagan era rhetoric (“We’ve got to restore America’s promise in this country where people know that with hard work and education, that they’re going to be secure and prosperous and that their kids will have a brighter future than they’ve had.”), he couldn’t get past his blind faith in markets. When defending his opposition to the auto bailout, Romney said, “The market can help lift them out.” Not we, the people, but the abstract market.

In Romney’s vision, people are powerless against “destructive capitalism”. This, according to Seligman, is one facet of pessimistic thinking, and nowadays it qualifies as religious doctrine for Republicans. The contrast to “Yes we can” couldn’t be better for Democrats.

A startling chapter of Seligman’s “Learned Optimism” is how he applied the study of optimism to politics. He found not only that the more optimistic candidate invariably wins, but also that politicians can’t fake optimism. Seligman recounted the 1988 presidential campaign in which Michael Dukakis gave an optimistic speech at the Democratic convention and shot 20 points ahead in the polls. As the campaign wore on and a more pessimistic Dukakis revealed himself in the debates, Vice President George Bush pulled ahead.

Now we have another Massachusetts Governor who can’t hide his bad attitude behind his pretty talking points. The only advantage to trusting the market to solve all your problems is that it is less obscene but otherwise similar in sentiment to the Forrest Gump T-shirt promising that bad things just happen.

That may be true, but Americans don’t like to be told they can’t. It’s halftime in America, and Coach Obama is telling us, “Yes, we can.”


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