Sonny Perdue, the veterinarian who marched the Republican Party to power in Georgia, defined American politics in 2014 better than the political scientists. "It's the two P's," he said the other day, "polarization and paranoia."
Perdue was bemoaning what had happened to "the Common Core," the great school reform on which he and other Republican governors, notably Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee, had staked their political glory. Now Common Core is reviled by much of their party as Barack Obama's takeover of our children.
Denouncing "Obamacore" gets lusty cheers at Republican gatherings, although the president had virtually nothing to do with it. In 2010, the Republican-led National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers pushed the learning benchmarks, which Huckabee can claim (and did until a few weeks ago) were roughly modeled after his own Smart Core school benchmarks in Arkansas a decade ago. Forty-six states quickly adopted the Core. Business groups lauded it because it was supposed to raise the English and math proficiency of graduates and reverse America's declining competitiveness with Europe and Asia. Arkansas just phased in the last stage of the Common Core, in grades 9–12.
Right-wing groups were agin' it all along, as they were school reforms like George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind (2001) and other efforts over the years to establish nationwide benchmarks that children were to achieve by grade levels. All the school standards, just like Social Security, Medicare, occupational safety and clean-air and -water rules, smacked of socialism and federal control to some.
The critics found an opening when Obama's education commissioner said he would give extra points to states applying for competitive school pilot grants or waivers from No Child Left Behind if they had adopted some Common Core standards. See, the opponents said, Obama was behind it all along and it furthers his goal of turning the United States into a totalitarian state.
"Obamacore" comes at a good time because polls and the changing political races indicate that Obamacare — that is, the Affordable Care Act — is wearing a little thin as the wedge issue in the battleground races across the South and Midwest. People are tired of endless Obamacare ads and, besides, with more than 9 million Americans newly enrolled in private or government health plans, most of them for the first time, and tens of millions of Medicare enrollees seeing lower drug bills and free medical screenings as a result of Obamacare, fewer people every day faint at the mention of "Obamacare." Now they can get mad for a year or so about the coming Obamacore takeover of the neighborhood school.
Obamacare and Obamacore enjoy a similar genesis. The health reform — or at least its one hated feature, mandatory coverage by private health plans — began as a Republican reform, first in the 1970s as Richard Nixon's and Gerald Ford's solution to universal health insurance and then as congressional Republicans' answer in 1993, when Hillary Clinton tried to foist medical insurance on the needy.
Last month, Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, President George H. W. Bush's surgeon general, said he was still puzzled that Republicans had repudiated the big features of Obamacare, which he and the conservative Heritage Foundation had drafted in 1991-92 for President Bush to push through Congress if he were re-elected. It was all there: the exchanges, the mandate, the subsidies to help low-income families buy coverage — all but the pilot projects and the restrictions on insurance companies to protect families from losing their insurance. Republican leaders in both houses sponsored it.
Sullivan thinks Republicans should be given credit for the achievements of Obamacare, and not just Mitt Romney, who instituted it in Massachusetts. The Republican National Committee honored Dr. Sullivan as a Republican "trailblazer" two months ago, but he was kind enough not to bring it up.
Now, Republicans are abandoning their other baby, Obamacore, in droves, especially the presidential candidates. Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul condemn it. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, one of its earliest champions, says he was mistaken and wants Louisiana to undo what he had coerced his state to do.
Even Huckabee has bailed — well, on some days. He saw the tide turning in December and told his Fox News audience he no longer supported the learning standards. But when he met more privately with the Council of Chief State School Officers, he said the states should just change the name from Common Core to something else. It might then shed its association with Obama.
"Rebrand it," he said.
That's what several Republican governors are doing. Jeb Bush, who may be the leading Republican presidential candidate, stands almost alone as champion of the Core, although his successor in Florida has changed it to "Next Generation Sunshine State Standards." Claim that, Barack Obama!
In the House of Representatives, 42 of the party's extremists, including Arkansas's Tom Cotton, sponsored a resolution denouncing the federal government for "coercing" states into adopting Common Core goals for children. Rick Crawford, not so much an extremist most of the time, also signed it, but some of the most hysterical conspiracists in the world are in his home county.
Before long, you'll hear that Cotton's opponent, Sen. Mark Pryor, is a secret Obamacore commando. As Sonny Perdue said, "There's a great deal of paranoia in this country today."