A letter from Washington (October 2010) - Skip Kaltenheuser


At first, the loosely defined Tea Party seemed an entertaining sideshow. Then media personalities like former Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin sought to absorb it any way possible. Glenn Beck, a commentator for Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, appeared so over the top - “Progressivism is the cancer in America and it is eating our Constitution” – that credibility appeared questionable. But now most of Washington is betting that Tea Party fever heating the Nov. 2nd mid-term elections will swing the pendulum so far it’ll throw the House and/ or Senate to Republicans, fracturing President Obama’s objectives.

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If Democratic vocal cords thaw sufficiently to make the case for holding power, the Tea Party still leaves its mark. Even some conservative incumbent Senators who were shoo-ins in the general election were dumped in Republican primaries by Tea Party candidates, as were Republican establishment candidates for open seats. Diminishing nationwide enchantment with Palin didn’t prevent her from a decent track record of successful endorsements. Republicans, terrified of running afoul of Tea Party faithful, now abandon all compromise with President Obama, as compromise is a sellout deserving a Tea Party purge. Conservative Democrats are shifting right as well.

Yet one indicator after another suggests that gridlock isn’t a winning strategy for the nation. The US Census Bureau just announced that, in 2009, one in seven Americans, 44 million, living in households below the poverty line. It’s the highest percentage in fifteen years, and the highest numbers in fifty-one years of tracking. One fifth of children live in poverty.

The poverty line is set so low - $10,830 for a single adult, pretax, and $22,050, for a family of four - that many above it, particularly in more expensive parts of the country, remain
in tough circumstances. More would drop beneath the line if they hadn’t family to move in with. Without unemployment benefits, three million more families would be under the line.

It’s no shock that those without medical insurance rose to 51 million from 46 million the year before. Most recent medical reforms will take several years to kick in. Republicans, with Tea Party steam, are fighting to overturn them. Never mind that over half of bankruptcies are related to medical costs. Those charging the Obama Administration with having erred in spending political capital on health care reform instead of totally focusing on the economy are oblivious that the two are inseparable. Most economists point out that the picture would be bleaker yet if not for government efforts.

But government spending - unemployment or health or nearly anything else - is the bane of the Tea Party members. So is government regulation of any kind, including of the finance institutions. Many even want to close down agencies such as the Department of Education. They care not that among industrialized countries the US has dropped to twelfth in its percentage of college graduates.

Note, though, that the Tea Party is not a third party. It thrives on Republican turf, though it’s also pulling in frustrated independents. It tapped smouldering anger at Washington over the often correct perception that the fix is in for the well-heeled fat cats. Members rail against lobbyists and special interests. However, you won’t hear Tea Party advocacy of campaign finance reform, even in an election where recent court decisions open floodgates of money without transparency.

How do the Tea Party’s half dozen major groups, and hundreds of smaller ones, come together? Writing for The National Journal, Jonathan Rauch underscores the group’s decentralized identity, more an ever-evolving network than an organization with a discernible hierarchy of authority. Rauch credits the social-networking by several dozen conservatives for laying the foundation in late 2008. The bank bailout served to recruit figurative pitchforks and torches. But, as Teihan Salam, columnist for the online National Review, a conservative magazine, says the Tea Party is not “a single, cohesive political force that makes strategic decisions. Rather, it is a kind of intelligent swarm that is very good at focusing intense anti-incumbent energy and, so far at least, little else.”

But that angry swarm now fuses with Republicans at large. For the first time, they are predicted to turn out in larger mid-term election numbers than Democrats. They are rapidly e-mailing a cover article by Dinesh D’Souza in Forbes Magazine, (which once claimed a veneer of business respectability), that claims “The U.S. is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950’s...”, referring to the Kenyan father whom a young Obama barely met. Former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich lauds the article and told the National Review that Obama may follow a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” world view.

But, if the Tea Party movement helps Republicans take over Congress, how far can they travel? Recent polling indicates weak support for repealing the healthcare law and extending tax cuts for the wealthiest. Seniors don’t want an axe taken to their entitlement programs.

The rub is that many Tea Party members believe their groups have been spontaneously generated, in large part as a protest to well connected elites running government for
their own benefit. But Tea Party outlook has been cultivated and spoon-fed for years. Beyond the constant media boosting from Murdoch’s Fox News, backers include two right wing libertarian brothers, David and Charles Koch, of the wildly successful Koch Industries. They have thirty-five billion dollars between them. For years they’ve salted conservative think tanks and organizations with many millions of dollars. According to a remarkable article by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker, there’s considerable interplay between their creations and the Tea Party movement, from the shaping of ideology to David Koch’s founding of one of the major Tea Party groups, Americans for Prosperity. Heavily invested in petroleum products, the brothers are strongly opposed to environmental and energy regulation, to any notion of man warming the climate, to being taxed and of course to all things Obama. Their views weave tightly with the Tea Party’s.

Perhaps the Democrats will successfully turn out unexpected voters by making the case that the Tea Party owes more to the Mad Hatter than to Boston, and that it has captured the Republican Party. But, if Democrats succeed, it will be counter to the history of incumbent legislators sunk during economic calamities.


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Skip Kaltenheuser is a freelance journalist and writer. He can be contacted at skip.kaltenheuser@verizon.net

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