The Midterm Elections and the Tea Party

30 October 2010 | 13:57 Code : 9153 General category
By Hooman Majd.
The Midterm Elections and the Tea Party
In less than a week, Americans will wake up to the news that the Democrats have in all likelihood lost control of one or both houses of Congress. At this late stage in the campaign season, some of the early dire predictions of sweeping Republican gains in both the House and Senate seem to have been a little too pessimistic, although it does seem likely, according to most polls and analysts, that the Democrats will lose a majority in the House of Representatives but will hold on to their edge in the Senate. 

Politically (and perversely), losing both the Senate and the House might actually be the best scenario for the Obama administration, but of course no one in the administration would ever admit it. With a presidential campaign on the near horizon, the administration could benefit from deflecting some of the anger and blame Americans tend to direct to the party controlling two of the branches of government—the executive and legislative—away from the Democratic party and onto Republicans who will, after all, have a say in the governing of the nation if they control the legislative branch. (President Clinton, who lagged in the polls in his first term in office, faced a Newt Gingrich revolt that resulted in a Republican-controlled House, and yet decisively won his re-election campaign of 1996.) Regardless, the Obama administration will have to readjust its policies in the wake of the midterms, especially, as it seems likely, if it loses its ally Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House. 

What is evident is the anger it may want to deflect onto its opposing party is real—real as expressed by the emergence and growing influence of the Tea Party in these elections. Where does this anger of the electorate come from, and why is it directed at the Obama administration, which, after all, has only been in office for some 20 months? Where was the anger, an outside observer might ask, during the George Bush administration? The Tea Party (which isn’t really a party but is a movement) is opposed to big government and taxes, but why did it not exist when government actually expanded under Bush, and U.S. foreign policy resulted in hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer money (theirs) being spent on wars that seem to have had no benefit whatsoever to Americans? The Democrats (including Obama) have proven remarkably inept at addressing these questions. It was left to Michael Bloomberg, the conservative Mayor of New York and a one-time Republican, to best express the vacuousness of the Tea Party agenda, which is, in the end, more about anger at Washington than anything substantive. “Anger,” he said, “is not a governing strategy.” Anger is real, he seem to acknowledge, especially in particularly difficult economic times, but anger alone will not solve America’s problems.  

The Tea Party may ride a wave of voter anger right into the halls of Congress, but the movement won’t control Congress, and it will eventually lose much of its appeal, especially when Americans recognize the truth of Bloomberg’s words. Mainstream Republicans are as wary of Tea Party extremists—and that’s what they are, extremists—as most Democrats are, and a Republican House won’t mean a Tea Party House. Christine O’Donnell, the Tea Party Republican candidate for Senator from Delaware, had very little of substance to offer in her campaign, and her television commercial, now famous for the opening in which she declares she is not a witch, and ends with her simply saying “I am you”, betrayed the extent of what she believed was her appeal: she was simply not “them”, the political class—the fat cat Republicans and liberal Democrats who control government but are so far removed from ordinary people that they cannot possibly understand their problems—but ignored the question of what happens if she wins and therefore becomes a member of the political class. Can she be “us” and have a distrust of government if she is a part of it? Can she offer solutions to America’s problems if she, like most Americans, cannot recite the Bill of Rights? Hers, and other Tea Party movement candidates’ appeal, however, should not be underestimated, and American voters are not unlike voters across the globe. Didn’t Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s first campaign for office, after all, largely rest on the same concept—that he was an ordinary Iranian, unlike the members of the ruling elite—and didn’t he continue that theme in his re-election campaign? Nobody likes politicians, it seems, not in the U.S., and not in Iran. 

Voter anger may put candidates like O’Donnell in office, but once they’re elected, there is actually an expectation that they do something of substance, that they perform, and it doesn’t seem like the Tea Party has very much to offer in terms of getting anything done in the notoriously inefficient halls of power in Washington. No, the Tea Party, in what will be its first real turn at elective office, will in the end prove to be nothing more than a passing fad, reliant only on voter anger and a subliminal (if not overt) racist attitude toward a president who is not only a Democrat, but a Black man with a Muslim middle name. If that Black man with a Muslim name is able to preside over an economic recovery, a drastic reduction in the unemployment rate, and his health care program proves, as it ultimately will, that most Americans will be better off for it, and when the Democrats are better able to explain (as they have been unable to so far) how their tax program actually results in lower taxes for the vast majority of Americans, then the Tea Party movement will have nowhere to go. It’s a tall order for the president, but he still seems well prepared for the challenge. 

Outside of America, people shouldn’t be overly concerned about the long-term effects of Tea Party politics—it remains inconceivable that a Sarah Palin could one day become president—but they should certainly be concerned about some of the attitudes that Tea Party advocates hold toward foreigners and foreign relations, and which are shared by an alarming number of Americans who aren’t even members of the movement. Whether the Tea Party is relevant in domestic politics or not in a few years, the ideas it espouses about Muslims, for example, should be a cause of alarm to Muslims everywhere. Most recently, Tea Party supporters, including Sarah Palin, have denounced the controversial firing of journalist Juan Williams by NPR for his expressing the view (on television) that he is concerned and uncomfortable when he is on an airplane and he spots a Muslim passenger. Anyone who visibly identifies him or herself as a Muslim must automatically be suspicious, in his view. Palin and others have decried his firing as a case of trampling on Williams right to free speech, but that view betrays their misunderstanding of the Constitution. The First Amendment does indeed protect an individual’s right to free speech, and doesn’t allow the government to suppress that right. But corporations are not the government, and they have every right to terminate employees who publicly express opinions that are in conflict with the corporation’s. There is no “right” to employment anywhere in the Constitution. Curiously, none of the Tea Party advocates who believe that Juan Williams has been at best unfairly treated or at worst denied his rights by NPR for expressing a negative view of Muslims, had any problem whatsoever with Helen Thomas, the Dean of the White House press corps, being fired by the AP for expressing her view that Israelis should leave Palestine to the Palestinians. It is not just this fundamental misunderstanding of the Constitution by Tea Party members (and advocates) that is troubling, it is the double standard that they and so many other Americans are willing to employ, and the actual bigotry they exhibit, in their attitude toward Muslims. That members of Congress expressed anger at NPR (and threatened to look at cutting off its federal funding) is even more troubling. 

Another troubling effect (for non-Americans) of extremism and Tea Party politics, at least in these midterm elections, is that a Republican House might result in Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican of Florida, taking over the chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (from current chairman Howard Berman, a liberal Democrat from California). Ms. Ros-Lehtinen, who once said, “I welcome the opportunity of having anyone assassinate Fidel Castro and any leader who is oppressing the people”, has also introduced legislation to cut U.S. funding for the UN and the Palestinian Authority, and rumors in Washington are that she might try to introduce legislation on a ban on travel to Iran, much like the current ban on travel to Cuba, which she wholeheartedly supports as an active member of the Cuban-American lobby. Tea Party politics may appear to be almost exclusively about domestic issues (for most of the candidates who align themselves with the movement tend to be woefully ignorant of anything beyond the twelve mile limit of American shores), but when it comes to international affairs, their instinct has been to divide the world into good and evil, seemingly purely based on the Israeli view of what constitutes either. For Middle Easterners, where American foreign policy is most concentrated these days, it should be an uncomfortable thought. 

President Obama has spent the first half of his presidency glancing over one shoulder at the powerful interest groups opposed to his foreign as well as his domestic policies, and while his re-election in 2012 is not yet seriously in doubt, he will likely be glancing over both shoulders for the next two years. It would be good for America’s adversaries to bear that in mind.


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