The GOP is losing the dog wars to Obama.

Notes from the political sidelines.
May 15 2009 1:18 PM

Gone to the Dogs

The GOP is losing the dog wars to Obama.

The Obamas and Bo. Click image to expand.
The Obamas and Bo

When David Cameron set out to transform the Tory Party in Britain, one of his first triumphs was a trip to the Arctic for a famous photo-op hugging a Husky. In one fell swoop, he convinced voters that he cared about the environment—and, perhaps more important, loved dogs.

Here in the United States, the GOP would do well to study Cameron's playbook. As Slatecontributor Michael Schaeffer writes in his new book, One Nation Under Dog, six out of 10 American households have pets—and 37 percent have dogs. The show-stopping arrival of the Obamas' new puppy, Bo, proves once again that politics is dog ownership by other means. The limited-edition Bo Beanie Baby commands up to $140 on eBay. According to a new Fox News poll, most Americans believe Bo will have a longer leash than the vice president.

Advertisement

During the 2000 campaign, my friend and former colleague Elaine Kamarck told the Boston Globe, "The Democratic Party is going to take back God this time." (In retrospect, we would have settled for Florida.) Among its many challenges in 2012, the Republican Party will first have to take back dogs. In November, Bill Kristol wrote that what troubled him most on Election Night wasn't Obama's margin of victory but his pledge to get his daughters that new puppy. Recalling images of FDR with Fala and Reagan with Rex, Kristol wrote, "Maybe a realignment could be coming."

Some Republicans, alas, did not get the memo. Mitt Romney will never live down his family vacation with an Irish setter strapped to the roof. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's career began to unravel after his from-nowhere comment that marriage is not "man on dog."

This past week, another Republican who should know better—Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty—got on the wrong side of man's best friend. In an effort to warn dog owners about the dangers of mulch made from cocoa bean shells, the Minnesota legislature recently passed Moose's Law, named for a 105-pound chocolate Labrador who died of a cocoa-mulch overdose. Last Friday, Pawlenty vetoed the bill as "an example of legislative overreach." Just what the party of Sarah Palin needs—another Moose killer.

The dog-bites-mulch debate did make the Minnesota legislature look a bit ridiculous. The debate firmly established two things: Labs don't know what's good for them, and neither do many Republicans. One Republican legislator complained that the bill would lead to warning labels on Cocoa Puffs; another said dogs couldn't read the warnings even if they were written in English. Other Republicans were more sympathetic: One legislator's dog got sick from eating mulch, while another had to put to sleep a cat who ate an Easter lily. Constituents chimed in as well—including a Star-Tribune reader whose dog ate a live Poinsettia, then a silk one.

Pawlenty and other opponents of mulch reform cited industry statistics that even though chocolate is toxic to dogs, cocoa mulch poses no great risk because 98 percent of dogs don't like it. Oddly enough, they could use the same defense for Bush's economic policies: We have nothing to fear from conservative ideas because the country no longer can stomach them.

The governor may be right that Minnesota has bigger problems than chocolate Labs eating chocolate mulch. And to be sure, the first three letters of Pawlenty's name must be worth something in the canine world. But his dilemma is a reflection of what happens to a down-on-its-luck party with lots of frustration and no good options: No matter what your intentions, the world assumes you're looking for a dog to kick.

Luckily for the GOP, at least one potential 2012 hopeful is a pro-dog Republican who wants a big dog party. When the Bush-Cheney administration was defending the use of torture last spring, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman did what little he could to soften his party's image: by signing a law to punish the torture of dogs and cats as a felony. The bill was named Henry's Law, after a Chihuahua that was burned in an oven in a domestic dispute. "As we treat our animals, so do we treat our fellow human beings," Huntsman said.

Merriam-Webster defines huntsman as "a person who manages the hunt and looks after the hounds." At the moment, that could double as a description of what it takes to lead the Republican Party. The governors' wing—led by Huntsman, Bobby Jindal, and Charlie Crist—wants a kinder, gentler GOP. For conservative diehards, by contrast, it's all about the hunt, so much so that even Republican strategists listen to Dick Cheney and wonder, why is this man growling?

TODAY IN SLATE

History

The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

The GOP Senate Candidate in Iowa Doesn’t Want Voters to Know Just How Conservative She Really Is

Does Your Child Have “Sluggish Cognitive Tempo”? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

The Supreme Court, Throughout Its History, Has Been a Massive Disappointment

Why Indians in America Are Mad for India’s New Prime Minister

Damned Spot

Now Stare. Don’t Stop.

The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD

The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 12:04 PM John Hodgman on Why He Wore a Blue Dress to Impersonate Ayn Rand
  News & Politics
Jurisprudence
Sept. 30 2014 2:36 PM This Court Erred The Supreme Court has almost always sided with the wealthy, the privileged, and the powerful, a new book argues.
  Business
Building a Better Workplace
Sept. 30 2014 1:16 PM You Deserve a Pre-cation The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.
  Life
Education
Sept. 30 2014 1:48 PM Thrashed Florida State’s new president is underqualified and mistrusted. But here’s how he can turn it around.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 4:45 PM Steven Soderbergh Is Doing Some Next-Level Work on The Knick
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 2:38 PM Scientists Use Electrical Impulses to Help Paralyzed Rats Walk Again
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath the Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.