Several months ago, the head of the Republican Study Committee prepared a memo for GOP lawmakers, advising them to "lean into the culture war" as a way to return to political power. Ahead of Virginia's recent elections, Republican strategists were offering similar guidance.
It's a message Sen. Ted Cruz appears to have taken to heart. The Texas Republican picked a fight with Big Bird over the weekend, accusing the Sesame Street character of promoting "government propaganda" because the Muppet used social media to help inform kids about important public health information.
The senator's criticisms were weird and misguided, but they generated attention. And the more Cruz faced pushback, the more he kept the offensive going: A Washington Post report noted the Texas Republican "tweeted or retweeted Big Bird attacks at least nine times over the next couple of days, which was substantially more tweets than he offered about a mass-casualty event in Houston this weekend."
Yesterday, as The New York Daily News noted, the senator kept his focus on the Muppet.
After taking aim at "Sesame Street" character Big Bird for urging kids to get inoculated against COVID-19 over the weekend, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz mocked Democratic bigwig Hillary Clinton's sartorial choices in a photo showing the vaccine-promoting pair standing together. "Captured in the wild, rare image of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch," the senator tweeted.
Look, I'm mindful of how modern politics works. Cruz may or may not be invested in Big Bird and children's vaccinations, but the GOP lawmaker knows a thing or two about generating attention for himself and taking advantage of culture-war opportunities.
The Sesame Street bruhaha will soon fade, but the Texan will have scored a few points with his party's base, and he'll probably end up with a slightly larger social media presence than he had before complaining about Big Bird's efforts to help children during a pandemic. He'll probably see a bump in fundraising, too.
It's why much of Cruz's party has spent much of the year thinking along these culture-war lines. The Republican Party doesn't have a platform, and it's not offering alternative policy blueprints to the Democratic agenda, but over the course of 2021, it's had plenty to say about Dr. Seuss. And Potato Head dolls. And critical race theory. And whether assorted businesses are excessively "woke." And the relationship between masculinity, video games, and pornography.
The Republican Study Committee urged GOP officials to "lean into the culture war" and the party has responded by leaning to the point of falling over.
This may very well work out quite well for Republicans. These are issues that feed conservative media and keep the party's base engaged. It's worked for the party in the recent past, and no one will be surprised if it helps generate big wins for the party in 2022.
But as the guy who wrote a book about the contemporary GOP becoming a post-policy party, it's hard not to notice a problem with all of this: At no point do Republicans express even the slightest interest in governing.
On the contrary, when a small percentage of GOP lawmakers voted for a popular and sensible infrastructure plan, those Republicans were threatened with intra-party punishments — because they dared to briefly put policy over partisan politics.
The problem is not that the Republican Party cares about culture-war distractions; the problem is that's all the party cares about. There's no shortage of substantive challenges facing the nation, and the GOP isn't prepared to offer substantive solutions to any of them, too often preferring fights with Muppets.
The current culture-war fights don't even have the benefit of a governing dimension. As we discussed in the spring, the GOP's traditional focus on social issues had at least some policy relevance — which is to say, they dealt with issues that Congress could at least try to affect.
Vote for Republicans and they'll pass an abortion ban. Vote for Republicans and they'll create new laws to prevent marriage equality. Vote for Republicans and they'll mandate English as the official language. And so on.
Obviously, these were (and in some cases, are) highly contentious cultural and political fights, but there was at least a correlation between the issues and those hoping to make federal policy changes.
This new approach to the culture war is different in that Congress couldn't ban the study of race, power, and institutions even if it wanted to. Similarly, Republicans couldn't spearhead a legislative initiative to force Dr. Seuss Enterprises to publish old books with racist pictures or regulate Big Bird's Twitter account.
None of this falls within the purview of Congress. None of these issues can even be conceptually addressed through federal legislation. Republicans are increasingly fixated on cultural grievances with no possible solutions in mind.
So why bother? Because the party believes voters share these post-policy instincts.
We won't hear Republicans saying, "Vote for us and we'll do something about the stuff you hate," but we will hear Republicans effectively saying, "Vote for us because we hate the same stuff you hate."