COLUMN: Hey MAGA folks: define 'great'

Gene Lyons

So, here's my question for the MAGA crowd – one of several related questions, actually: When was America last great, and what was great about it? Also, when did it quit being great, and why?

To a skeptical observer, it often looks as if restoring the social and political arrangements of, say, Alabama in the 1950s is the movement's goal. Blacks and women in their subservient places, white Protestant men ascendant, and the Cisco Kid and Pancho the only brown people in sight.

To be fair, it's probably the Mayberry of "The Andy Griffith Show" that folks have in mind: more Opie, Aunt Bee and Barney Fife than Gov. George Wallace and Birmingham's racial enforcer Bull Connor. Nobody really imagines that racial segregation and police riots are coming back.

For most people, those halcyon days ended at about age 12, around the time they started reading newspapers, watching TV news and grokking the adult world. In childhood, life seemed simple; violence and disorder were unknown. I can never hear The Judds' saccharine song "Grandpa (Tell Me 'Bout the Good Old Days)" on the country oldies station without thinking of Alabama's hillbilly genius Hank Williams.

The song evokes a bygone era of innocence when "families really (bowed) their heads to pray" and "daddies really never (went) away." Meanwhile, Hank Williams' heartbroke songs about drinkin', sinnin' and runnin' around evoked the world as it was. Grandpa knew, but the children of Mayberry had no idea.

Too many still don't. Hence MAGA, a fantasy.

That's an even more roundabout way than usual of saying that regardless of which political party prevails in the November congressional elections, it would be foolhardy to expect dramatic change of the kind MAGA enthusiasts think they're looking for. They can cheer all they want for a gangster former president who basically called in a hit on his own running mate, but the deck remains stacked against them.

First, it's not yet clear that Trump is going to get away with it. Should upcoming hearings by the House select committee on Jan. 6 prove even halfway as shocking as predicted – a former GOP congressman working as an investigator for the committee describes the evidence as "absolutely stunning" – all of Fox News' horses and all of its men won't be able to save him. Also, the former president may yet face criminal indictment – if not by the Justice Department, then by a Georgia district attorney investigating his attempts to strong-arm the state's electoral process.

Also, a lot can happen between now and Election Day to upset Republicans' expectations. Should the Supreme Court, as expected, overturn Roe v. Wade, in effect rendering women of childbearing age vassals and vessels of the state, voters could turn strongly against them. Many Democratic strategists favor making the 2022 election a referendum on abortion rights, an issue strong enough to overcome voter frustration with inflation and gasoline prices.

"Give us the House and two more senators," Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall suggests Democrats say, "and we will make Roe law in January 2023."

Not that the Republicans have put forward serious plans for dealing with economic woes. Given the customary level of voter superstition that holds the sitting president and his party responsible for things over which they have almost no control – inflation and high energy costs are rampant worldwide – they may not think they need to.

But no matter what happens in November, the real impediments to making MAGA daydreams come true are the Senate filibuster – the very thing that has stymied the Biden administration's legislative goals – and, equally decisive, the presidential veto.

"No one at the White House will say this out loud, certainly," veteran political reporter Matt Bai writes in The Washington Post, "but the fact is that losing control of the House (and possibly the Senate) in November would instantly make the presidency a more manageable job."

Certain aggravating congressional Democrats would lose their megaphones. Also, the last two Democratic presidents who lost control of Congress in midterm elections were Bill Clinton in 1994 and Barack Obama in 2010. Confronting Rep. Newt Gingrich's Contract With America, Clinton issued 17 vetoes over the next two years – including, most significantly in this context, a GOP bill banning so-called "partial-birth abortions."

Clinton also faced down a Republican-led government shutdown in 1995-'96 and ended up being reelected easily.

For his part, President Obama, too, fought off numerous Republican attempts to repeal his signature Affordable Care Act and won easy reelection. Give these MAGA cranks "a couple of years to show us what kind of government they have in mind," Bai thinks, "and Biden will look like Abraham Lincoln by comparison."

My own view is that although he really can't say so until 2023, Joe Biden probably won't run for reelection, and shouldn't. Putting Trumpism on life support is a sufficient lifetime political accomplishment. Also, it's long past time for generational change at the top of the Democratic Party.

Gene Lyons is an author and a columnist with the Arkansas Times.

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