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Why Dr. Seuss books are Fox News' focus and not the Covid stimulus bill

Cancel culture hasn't come for Dr. Seuss. But Republicans want their base to think it has.
Photo illustration of a shields going in two different directions. The top most shield has the GOP part symbol on it.
The GOP strategy: playing defense in Washington and going on offense in the culture war. Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

There appears to be a disconnect between Republicans in Congress and their base. Among the former, you see united opposition to President Joe Biden's economic agenda. In contrast, the Republican base isn't getting riled up over the overall amount of spending in the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill or the proposed minimum wage hike. Instead, it apparently now cares a lot about whether cancel culture is coming for Dr. Seuss.

It would be funny if the talking heads on Fox News weren't so serious about it. But, no, the primary news source for millions of Republican voters spent hours Tuesday lamenting that six of the books written by Theodor Geisel will no longer be published because of "racist and insensitive imagery."

That lack of focus on Biden's agenda from Fox News may be why Biden's stimulus bill is racking up support from all corners. It would seem like the rare, massive mistake from the GOP, which has for decades drawn its strength from its messaging machinery. Could the talking points have gotten lost in the mail?

But I'm starting to think that what looks like disharmony is actually separate campaigns that are being fought on two fronts in a single war. And while the tactics differ, there's a unified grand strategy: owning the Democrats, no matter the cost.

The core of the GOP's war plan is to go on offense with these skirmishes in the culture war while at the same time focusing on heavy defense and a siege mentality in Washington. The fights it picks border on the asinine on the surface, but they are deeply affecting in practice, as already vulnerable minorities bear the brunt. In Seussian terms, the Republicans hope enough voters will cling to the implied superiority their stars give them that they don't mind that little is done to substantially improve their lives.

With a few exceptions, policy matters less in these twin efforts than converting raw emotion into political power. It's that alchemy — when coupled with structural advantages the GOP holds in the U.S. political system — that has continuously revitalized the Republican Party during downturns and propelled it back into power.

Leading the vanguard are the party's rising stars, who are just building on the groundwork laid before them. When Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and his rabble-rousers took control of the House in 1994, their victory was less about the ideas they offered than about harnessing white voters' fear of a shifting cultural landscape. That strategy has been refined further and further since then, distilling the raft of policies in the Contract With America down to "cut taxes" in the tea party era. From there, it was a simple leap to do away with that premise entirely for the pure, uncut xenophobia and culture wars of the Trump presidency.

As The New Republic's Alex Pareene has noted, the truly maddening part of this conservative obsession with "cancel culture" is that we've seen it all before. Conservatives' complaints about "political correctness" in the 1990s have been remixed and revitalized for the 2020s. And now, as then, they're going to milk it for all it's worth to make voters feel superior to the scolds and nags who would have them stop telling racist jokes or start using proper pronouns for people.

Meanwhile, the GOP's old guard in Washington is holding fast to Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and his tried-and-true methods of obstruction and delay. The political calculus is something I've written about before — if Democrats can't get anything done, voters will turn against them, and the GOP will be there waiting.

It worked in 2010, during the fight over what would become Obamacare. "It was absolutely critical that everybody be together because if the proponents of the bill were able to say it was bipartisan, it tended to convey to the public that this is O.K., they must have figured it out," McConnell told The New York Times back then. The payoff: the GOP's retaking of the House in the midterms.

That's how we find ourselves in a position in which a majority of Republicans support Biden's stimulus bill — but a majority also still thinks the election was stolen from President Donald Trump. It's why someone like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., has had no problem trolling her colleagues for retweets with all her free time after she was booted from her committee assignments. And it's why Dr. Seuss has become a rallying point for Fox News and Republicans — even though conservatives once came pretty hard for "The Lorax"; even though it's the company that owns Seuss's content that made the decision to stop printing those six books, not Biden or any pressure campaign; even though, yes, some of the depictions in books like "If I Ran the Zoo" are racist; and even though it's kind of a bad look to argue for making sure racism has a place in children's literature.

The only good news is that this is a war of attrition. Republicans have been fighting against a tide of demographic changes throughout this battle; their voter pool is shrinking, and they're doing everything they can to keep the broader electorate from turning out to the polls in force. (House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., even managed to work in a lie about Seuss' being canceled in a speech denouncing a bill to expand voting rights nationally.)

If Democrats actually use the power gained through their dominance in the popular vote to change structures like the filibuster and the Electoral College, it's all over for the GOP in its current incarnation.

Unfortunately, that has also raised the odds that the GOP will pivot fully to a scorched-earth campaign. We got hints of what that would look like at CPAC and over the four years of the Trump administration. It's what lies in store if he retakes office in 2024 without the few guardrails left at the end of his term.

Democrats can't let this war go on like that. In the absence of a negotiated peace, they have to do what they can to change the battlefield in Washington now. The rules as they stand are tilted toward the GOP and away from progress. With apologies to Seuss, whose "The Butter Battle Book" perfectly satirized the arms race, all 50 Democrats need to turn the key and nuke the filibuster. Ironically, it's the only way to avoid mutually assured destruction.