Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Weak tea from the GOP

Today across our great land, conservative leaders, their bespoke media and a ragtag core of dead-enders did their best to come up with the launch of a movement renouncing big government and wasteful spending. But today’s Tea Bag Tax Day events revealed not much more than the depth of Republican disaffection with anything the Obama administration does, as well as the ways in which that reflexive opposition is the GOP idée fixe of the moment, and apparently the future.

It’s been planned for weeks now, and today, in demonstrations from Oak Harbor, Wash., to Sag Harbor, N.Y., protesters rallied to express opposition to big government in general, and specifically the multitrillion-dollar Obama budget, a budget made necessary in every way by the profligacies of his predecessor in the White House.

Officials in the nation’s capital prevented what could have been a waste-disposal nightmare: the planned dumping of 1 million tea bags on the city — an attempt foiled because some organizers couldn’t get the required permits (let’s set aside for now the curious fact that you can even get a permit to conduct a dumping operation in front of the White House).

But right out of the gate, the big problem for the events was the source for much of the organizational acumen behind them. Lobbyists and business interests were behind the scenes, as well as former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

News Corporation, the misinformation conglomerate piloted by tireless media buccaneer Rupert Murdoch, did its part as Official Media Mouthpiece to the Tea Bag Games. Continuing the profligate spending that saw News Corp. lose more than $6 billion in the last quarter of 2008, News Corp offshoot Fox News spent many thousands of dollars sending its anchors and staff to various Tea Party locations around the country, capping it all off with a prime-time special from Atlanta. “Thomas Paine,” a craggy actor in a powdered wig, made some overbroad connections between the first Tea Party in 1773 and the current event, then introduced Fox’s cavalcade of ideologues: Sean Hannity! Newt Gingrich! Mike Huckabee! Joe the Plumber!

This clearly orchestrated, top-down, big-budget promotion put the lie to the idea, advanced by conservatives, that Tea Bag Day was some explosive expression of pent-up American frustration and rage. (We just had one of those on Nov. 4; it turned out rather well.) With such heavy hitters aboard, Tea Bag Day was weakened at the start by the intimate involvement of the very government and corporate insiders the event was intended to protest against.

There was a populist element to all this; you can’t ignore it when American citizens gather to peacefully air their grievances in a unified chain of protests across the country. But there was a deep partisanship to it, some of it ugly and personal and even disturbing (OBAMA = HITLER, read one sign at the rally in Washington). The mix of lobbyists and insiders responsible for the Tea Bag protest, as well as anti-immigrationists, nativists and even white supremacists in Arizona made for one hell of a cocktail: tea mixed with the bile of agendaless conservatives bent on derailing a corrective to the mess their leadership created. And a hearty dash of snake oil.

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The protesters’ boilerplate complaint seemed to be a philosophical platform you could write in big letters on a 3x5 index card: Taxes are bad, the budget is too big, we can’t afford it, Obama has no clue, and we’re taking our country back! You don’t have to drill down terribly far to see the Tea Party protests as another transparent example of the GOP’s current bankruptcy of ideas beyond the reflex of just saying No.

The people who attended these anti-tax rallies, and the monied interests who lashed this together, have to contend with some inconvenient facts that undercut the emotional, populist, quasi-hysteric rationale for the Tea Parties in the first place:

Effective April 1, the tax rate for 95 percent of all American wage earners went down, increasing their take-home pay. For the remaining 5 percent of American workers — those probable Tea Bag Day no-shows who earn $250,000 or more — taxes went up slightly, to previous levels of the Reagan administration.

All across America today, people protested that their taxes were too high two weeks to the day after their taxes went down. And this earnest attempt to dovetail the angst of Tax Day with a protest against those taxes didn’t take something else into account: About 70 percent of Americans already get tax refunds from the IRS.

Then there was President Obama’s well-timed announcement today of his plans to provide a tax credit of $2,500 for students to get college educations, and his plans to simplify the “monstrous” tax code itself.

Let’s see, now … tax refunds, a new tax cut and, just maybe, aid to cash-strapped families of college students … Question to protesters: what the hell’s wrong with that?

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Clearly, what’s driving this thing is politics. It’s elder statesmen like Gingrich and Armey, along with party climbers like Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, who characterized the Tea Parties as “a building movement in this country … a growing tidal wave of discontent.” It’s built into the rhetoric of those farthest on the Republican right, some of them congressmen unalterably committed to both opposing President Obama’s initiatives for repairing the economy, and opposing attempts at bipartisan outreach on that and other issues that urgently need attention.

The facts are as simple as a chronology of events: the Bush administration preceded the Obama administration. The problem with the economy didn’t begin eighty days ago when Obama took office. The actions of the Obama White House are, for all the astronomical numbers in the budget, nothing more or less than a sober, measured attempt at correcting the policies and practices of the past eight years — a bid at correction that emphasizes the importance of the middle class.

But it’s hard to hear that when your ears are stuffed with tea bags.

We’ll see if this tea-lovers event actually is the first burst of the kind of truly viral, grassroots movement the Republicans need to revive their flagging political fortunes. We’ll wait to find out if the one-issue identity of this protest develops into the principled, dedicated opposition that makes our democracy not just functional, but possible.

For now, though, Tea Bag Day was a sound and fury signifying nothing but Republican desperation and a buying opportunity for investors in Unilever, the parent concern of the Thomas J. Lipton Company.
Image credits: Tea bag lady: Still from MSNBC. Snake oil: Still from "The Hoaxters" © 1952 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Obama sign: Still from Dittopost video via YouTube.

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