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Jac VerSteeg: GOP devolving into the party of, um, jerks

As a preacher’s kid who grew up in the South, I value politeness. Yes, sir. Yes, ma’am. Let me get that door for you.

It is a given that, when you encounter a governor in a coffee shop, you do not yell, “You are an a**hole!”

Nevertheless, Cara Jennings’ crude outburst in a Gainesville Starbucks provides an insight that if taken to heart might benefit the Republican Party, whose presidential frontrunners are Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

The party has an a**hole problem.

It is nominating, electing and otherwise advancing too many people for whom the Jennings epithet is appropriate.

Now, I do not like to throw that insult around casually. But even my Context Florida colleague Martin Dyckman – one of the most thoughtful columnists in America – reviewed Gov. Rick Scott’s record and concluded that Jennings had pretty much hit the nail on the head.

It’s not just a matter of policies. It includes the bullying attitude and tactics that led Scott’s apologists to respond to Jennings’ verbal assault with an equally low-class attack ad.

I checked the thesaurus to come up with a more family friendly term of disparagement. Many of the synonyms are just as rude as the original. I think the printable word that captures it best is “jerk.”

Scott is a jerk. Trump is a jerk. Cruz is a jerk. There are jerks on the Democratic side – Florida senatorial candidate Alan Grayson seems like one – but for the most part, Democrats portray themselves as a nicer bunch. You might disagree with their policy stances, but they have better manners.

And when they don’t have better manners – for example the Bernie Sanders supporter who referred to “corporate Democratic whores” – they usually suffer fits of guilt and quickly apologize.

But Trump revels in being a jerk, whether it’s threatening to spill the beans about Cruz’s wife or inciting crowds at his rallies who are angry at protesters to “Get ’em outta here!”

Cruz also has an entire “Jerk” heading on his resume. In fact, it’s just about the only thing on his Senate resume, from shutting down the government because it will boost his name recognition to calling Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, a “liar.”

The great thing about being a GOP jerk is that there apparently are a lot of Republican primary voters who are excited about the opportunity to vote for a jerk. I only can conclude that those voters also are jerks. But it seems unlikely to pay off in the general election.

As a recent Washington Post story detailed, both Trump and Cruz have very high negatives, with Trump racking up very, very high negatives. Both, for example, are less popular than Mitt Romney was at this point in the 2012 campaign.

Of course Hillary Clinton also has high negatives. But I don’t think it’s because she’s viewed as a “jerk.” She’s primarily viewed as being dishonest. (In part because she’s been relentlessly attacked by jerks.)

We know from the Scott re-election in 2014 that having very high negatives does not mean you will lose the election. Trump or Cruz might be able to beat Clinton or Sanders.

But in terms of party-building for the future, having Trump or Cruz win might be the worst thing that could happen to Republicans. The mood of the country is very much turning away from jerks. The rhetoric about gay people, immigrants, women and Muslims is not popular among younger voters and growing demographic segments of our population. Republican kowtowing to big money doesn’t help.

The GOP base simply has a higher percentage of jerks than the population at large.

Republicans had the opportunity to nominate a candidate who – while their policies might be similar to those of Cruz and Trump – did not come off as such a jerk. Marco Rubio, Ben Carson and John Kasich just seem nicer. But the jerks who were voting have opted instead to advance the died-in-the-wool jerks who were running.

The “establishment” in the Republican Party itself seems to recognize this problem. But they don’t know how to solve it. In the House, Speaker Paul Ryan – an apparent non-jerk who swears he won’t be drafted for the presidential ticket – hasn’t been able to corral the Tea Party folks – aka, the jerks – to pass a budget.

For some reason Senate Majority Leader McConnell has decided to act like a jerk and refuse to consider President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee. I assume he hopes that by acting like a jerk he can lure a few more GOP jerks to the polls next November.

Again, it might work in the short run. But it isn’t going to work in the long run. The GOP has to get its hard-core jerks under control. That’s what the leadership is trying to do by desperately seeking a way to pick anybody but Trump at this summer’s convention.

Good luck. Do that, and the jerks are going to rebel.

Cara Jennings didn’t have the best manners. But she summed up in one word everything wrong with Scott’s and the GOP’s arrogant, I-don’t-care-about-you approach to governing. That attitude is even more sneering and aggressive in Trump and Cruz.

The last three Republicans elected president were Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. What did they have in common? They were affable. Their party is re-branding itself with a different seven-letter word that begins with “A.”

***

Jac Wilder VerSteeg is a columnist for The South Florida Sun Sentinel, former deputy editorial page editor for The Palm Beach Post and former editor of Context Florida. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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