President Barack Obama could have only hoped for modest, small-bore successes to come out of his eight-day, three-summit jaunt through Europe and the Middle East. After all, repairing the world in the wake of the Bush administration is a complicated matter. It will be a while before we know with any certainty whether Obama achieved anything of lasting value, and it may even turn out that the critics who say it was all style and no substance will be proven right. But their validation will come at a cost. The virulent reaction from conservatives has been bizarre enough to render them irrelevant in any serious conversation about the country's future.
The litany of Republican crazy runs the gamut from: "He hates America," to "he was self-flagellating," to "he was subservient to the Saudis."
Fox News' Ralph Peters, reacting in the New York Post to Obama's Turkey visit, concluded that the president "surrendered our national pride, undercut our interests and interfered in matters that aren't his business." We should be drawing up the treason indictment right now.
And just for fun, Sean Hannity equated the Obama trip to the visit to Havana made by members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who later urged changes in the embargo against Cuba. On his Fox News talk show, Hannity summarized the Obama/Democratic position thusly: "America is arrogant; we are subservient to the Saudis and we love Castro."
There are no convincing explanations for this sort of ideological hyperventilation, except the unsatisfying, "that's how they roll." But the bottom line is that if Republicans continue these smears, they have no hope of being taken seriously when it comes time to debate the major issues confronting the country. This week's New York Times/CBS poll shows the depth of the GOP's troubles: The party faces a 58 percent disapproval rating among Americans. The crazy talk is not going to improve those numbers.
Meanwhile, there are real issues to worry about and maybe even debate. Obama returned home to higher unemployment figures. The administration is about to ask for another $75.5 billion for the wars in Iran and Afghanistan. The U.S. has embarked on a strategy in Pakistan with a better-than-even chance of failure. North Korea's recent launch of a long-range missile is nothing to sneeze at. And closer to home, The Washington Post reports that the recent spate of mass murders may be directly related to the hard economic times.
The political agenda is chock full of important stuff worthy of discussion. Rather than earnestly debate policy, the conservative echo chamber offers a new dose of histrionics every day. And it's not just the lunatic fringe peddling the cheap stuff. Newt Gingrich, the main repository of ideas in the Republican Party, resorted to a trick that Republicans tried to use against Obama last summer. Using coded language intended to convey weakness, he called Obama a conciliatory appeaser: "I think that it was an effort on his part to appease just about everybody he ran into," Gingrich said.
The right-wing apoplexy can be explained in part by the frustration that flows from their inability to stop the Obamania that has overtaken not only the country, but also the world. They are confused by why, in such rotten times, a guy who they believe has done nothing of substance can be so popular.
According a Marist Poll survey released this week, voters not only approve of the president's job performance, but they also think he understands the problems at hand. "More than seven in ten -- 72% -- say Mr. Obama understands the problems facing the nation ... Even a notable proportion of Republicans -- 38% -- believe the president is in tune with today's key issues."
As some conservative operatives and pundits try to portray the president as an out-of-touch celebrity, more than two-thirds of Americans surveyed in the Marist poll say they "view President Obama as someone who cares about the average person. Sixty-seven percent say the president cares about people like themselves while just 25 percent disagree." The debate on the budget shows that Democrats are doing a better job, in some ways, of framing arguments against Obama than the Republicans are.
The conservative zealots face a tough row to hoe in trying to sell Americans on the idea that their president is a bumbling America-hater who just wants to be adored. There is no question that Obama's celebrity, coupled with his wife's sudden surge in fabulousness, may have eclipsed the very progress that came out of the Obama trip. But is that any reason for Rush Limbaugh to go postal on a Republican guest who suggested that the constant criticism of Obama, no matter what he does, is not a winning strategy for the GOP?
Heated rhetoric aside, the Republican appraisals of Obama's foreign-policy moves are typical fare. They simply say that he's weak on defense and national security, and that he will not protect us because he is a touchy-feely liberal who would rather make friends than command respect.
That Obama seems oblivious to these critiques has been the key undermining factor of their political effectiveness. One conservative columnist, Kathleen Parker, praised Obama's trip, remarking that his foreign policy lacked traditional machismo elements: "When you're the big dog, you can afford to smile. The saber is understood."
More Republicans need to realize that point before they turn themselves into the big dog's political fire hydrant. If they don't, that's the very best they could hope for.