On Friday morning, The New York Times arrived surprisingly dry thanks to a staggered array of plastic bags. Over coffee, I was surprised to find our local Congressional representative, Martha Roby, criticized by name in the lead editorial. Just a few years ago, we thought of her fondly as our thoughtful and smart city council representative, someone whose political career might turn out to be promising — not just for the number of rungs climbed, but also because of the degree of good changes she might make during her time in Montgomery. Then the 2010 election happened. During the campaign, we got to know another side of Martha. Turns out she’s not just a nice lady who brings her own bags to the grocery store, flies coach and gives you a big hug whenever she sees you. She transformed in front of our eyes into a prototypical Tea Party creature, with just about everything represented as her own ideas bearing a striking resemblance to national party-approved talking points.
Think back to 2010, when Bobby Bright (a Democrat) still held the seat (having squeaked by GOP challenger Jay Love in the previous cycle). Martha was facing off against pool hall owner and self proclaimed super-patriot Rick Barber in the Republican primary. Don’t remember? Perhaps the following videos will jog your memory. First up was the nationally infamous “gather your armies” video, which reminds us that it wasn’t too long ago that not-so-veiled threats on the President’s life were mysteriously acceptable in political discourse.
There was also Barber’s classy “slavery” ad, with its controversial concentration camp photos and hilarious gross-teethed Lincoln impersonator (note: not Daniel Day-Lewis). Until today I did not know that there was an extended remix of this video that ends with a bunch of veteran fetishizing. Well, actually it ends with a cameo by noted gun enthusiast (and fellow election-losing Internet celeb) Dale Peterson. The ad ends with Barber and Peterson (and his gun) watching Glenn Beck’s TV show in what appears to be Barber’s Montgomery pool hall. Seriously.
So Rick Barber, described by the Washington Post‘s Ruth Marcus as “unhinged” and “affably extreme,” allowed Martha to seem pretty palatable by comparison – a genuinely nice mom, whose gun- and horse-free commercials threatened nobody — but did reveal a bizarre fixation with Nancy Pelosi. Roby basically ran against Pelosi, and if the recent Hilary Mantel-Kate Middleton “controversy” has taught us anything, it’s that everyone loves it when women criticize other women. It didn’t help Bright that he didn’t have anything to run on (he even ran away from Pelosi, as if the low-ranking winner of a Congressional seat in Alabama could single-handedly thwart the agenda of one of the most powerful people in Congress). Bright was able to say “Hey, I’m basically a Republican!” which is only a winning message when you aren’t running against an actual Republican. For this, Bright won Montgomery, but Roby got the Wiregrass/Opp/Wetumpka/white parts of the district, pulling out 51 percent to Bright’s 49 percent. Off to Congress!
In any case, here we are just three years after “gather your armies,” and I wanted to know how Martha Roby was now being called out in the same sentence with
the world’s saddest tangerine Speaker of the House John Boehner in the lead editorial of the nation’s most influential newspaper.
The kerfuffle started Thursday, when Martha was quoted above the fold on the front page. In case you’ve been hiding under a rock somewhere, the current part of America’s permanent state of fiscal emergency (less a fiscal cliff than a fiscal escalator to nowhere) is the countdown to sequestration. I’m not going to explain it here, but it’s well worth your time to go see Kate Upton and Ryan Gosling explain it here. Pay particular attention to the third panel from the end. The NYT‘s cover story basically relates the escalating game of hot potato that Congress (featuring the notoriously truculent House) is trying to play with the President, the theory being that whoever is left holding the budget when sequestration happens will be blamed by the public. Never mind that most polls show that no matter how much Congress squeals, the public is going to blame them – it’s all about ideology, saving face and pretending to put up a good fight.
Perhaps taking a page from the military strategy of Zapp Brannigan against the Kill-Bots, the GOP leadership seems to have decided to send wave after wave of first term representatives until the Democrats’ preset kill limit is exceeded. 25-star General Brannigan explains the strategy here:
Time to send in the Roby-cop! Sure, there are some noted differences between Martha and Detroit’s homegrown cyborg hero. There are also some eerie similarities. Consider their meal focus: After Peter Weller played Robocop, he appeared in Naked Lunch. Martha Roby wants to take away school lunches. Both struggled against OCP – for Robocop, this stood for Omni Consumer Products; Martha rages against the Obama Compassion Project. Both seem to lack basic human compassion for those that would be injured by their actions.
On Thursday, Martha was quoted as saying that Obama had “already gotten his tax increase” and that it was “unconscionable to use our men and women in uniform as a bargaining chip to raise our taxes.” Last week, the leadership gave her the
Prime Directive weekly Republican address to expound upon how the across-the-board sequestration cuts in the military should be replaced by “better, more responsible” ones. She did not explain what cuts those would be. Neither did she (or other Republicans) seem especially concerned about the other effects of sequestration – the calamitous cuts in access to social services that may tank the economies of many states while adding an estimated 1.5% to the national unemployment rate. No, Roby’s just been talking about the military. If you were confused about her strategy, consider that she was at Maxwell the other day with the same message. She’s right – it is unconscionable to use servicemembers as a bargaining chip. She was probably just on the front page of the Montgomery Advertiser with her arm around the head of Maxwell Air Force Base because they are besties. Totally not politically posturing at all.
It’s a shame about Martha. Here’s someone at the very beginning of her political career who isn’t contributing anything new or interesting or terribly smart to the political discourse. You might be tempted to say she brings the power of her convictions, but even those are so flimsy they fall apart on the closest examination. If you’ve got any doubts about that point, watch this video where she’s interviewed by Libertarian journalist Jan Helfeld.
The worst part is that her district is widely seen as “safe,” which is part of the reason she’s easy to throw into the trenches with some GOP talking points. Get her off-script, however, and it’s a whole different ball game. Fortunately for Martha and the GOP, everyone (including the New York Times) seems content to let her play her one-dimensional role. Obama bad. Military good. Taxes bad. Shrinking government (except the military) good. How much ya’ wanna’ bet that she ends up voting for the gutted version of the Violence Against Women act that the GOP’s proposed as an “alternative?” It is an “alternative” in that it does not protect LGBT victims, nor does it fully deal with the horrifying epidemic of sexual assault on reservation land.
And also sadly, Martha is catering to an electorate for whom a slam in the pages of the New York Times (don’t forget to read those words as spitefully as possible) is a badge of honor. Those liberal elites just don’t understand the importance of stopping our gosh-durn addiction to federal spending.
How did we get from our affable city councilperson to this embarrassment of a politician? There’s the “power corrupts” explanation, but that seems too easy, and we don’t have any reason to believe that Martha’s especially craven or (even slightly) corrupt. The scarier idea is that she didn’t have much in the way of convictions in the first place, just a generalized interest in doing good – easily shoved out front in the face of public controversies by party leaders eager to exploit enthusiasm in all of the worst ways.