Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The GOP and its malcontents

Sometime on Tuesday night, some idiot cut the propane line on the gas grill at the Virginia home of the brother of Rep. Thomas Perriello, a Democratic congressman who voted for the health care bill that was just signed into law. An organizer for the Lynchburg, Va., Tea Party, posted on his blog what he believed to be the congressman’s address, in case “any of his friends and neighbors want to drop by and express their thanks regarding his vote for health care.”

It goes without saying that a lit match anywhere near that line could have meant a disaster for Bo Perriello, his wife or their four, small, children. Happily, that didn’t happen. But that little incident reflects how the Republican Party in particular and the nation in general are dealing with something even more combustible.

With the passage of the health-care reform bill into law, the Republicans have started the ritual blame game, deciding who in the conservative ranks was at fault for the most stunning legislative rebuke the GOP has sustained in years.

They can start with their philosophical brethren, the good folks in the Tea Party movement.

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The behavior of Tea Party activists in the weeks and days and even hours before Sunday’s pivotal House vote — when TP protesters stained the parliamentary process with hateful posters and old-fashioned racist invective — probably made it easy for Democratic fence-sitters to throw their weight behind the Obama legislation that passed.

But the inflammatory rhetoric of the Tea Party crowd isn’t isolated to the Tea Party. After the vote came down on Sunday, GOP Rep. Steve King of Iowa spoke to a crowd of TP activists.

“You are the awesome American people,” King said. “If I could start a country with a bunch of people, they’d be the folks who were standing with us the last few days. Let’s hope we don’t have to do that! Let’s beat that other side to a pulp! Let’s chase them down. There’s going to be a reckoning!”

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On Saturday, Missouri congressman Emanuel Cleaver was spat upon by a protestor. Rep. John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat and icon of the civil rights movement, was called a “nigger.” And Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank was labeled a “faggot” by protestors who shouted at him as he made his way to work.

South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, the House Majority Whip and like Lewis a veteran of the civil rights era, told The Huffington Post that he “heard people saying things [over the weekend] that I have not heard since March 15, 1960, when I was marching to try and get off the back of the bus.”

And then there was that little outburst on Sunday by Rep. Randy Neugebauer of Texas, the conservative who shouted “baby killer” at Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan on the floor of the House of Representatives, while Stupak was defending his support of the bill.

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Want some more? On the day Obama signed health-care bill into law, Carl Paladino, a Buffalo millionaire and Republican candidate for governor, equated the impact of the new federal health care law to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“The day that bill was passed will be remembered just as 9/11 was remembered in history,” Paladino told Curtis Sliwa during a morning drive-time interview on AM-970. “It was an attempt by these people in Washington to defy the Constitution.”

In the days since the signing, there have been at least 10 attacks or threats against Stupak and other Democratic lawmakers in upstate New York, Kansas, Ohio and Arizona.

And, oh yeah, that severed gas line at Bo Perriello’s home.

You can’t say President Obama’s inauguration 14 months ago didn’t put people to work. It effectively created a full employment act for Tea Party activist sign painters, graphic artists and Web designers all over the country. In their angry Photoshop-capable hands, the 44th president of the United States has been transformed into a witch doctor, a lab-coated mad scientist, Batman’s nemesis the Joker, a surrogate for Osama bin Laden, a Russian general and a darker, leaner version of Adolf Hitler.

The Internet is of course a great conduit for artistic outrage. Recently, for example, the SarahPAC Web site, run by former Alaska governor and political personality Sarah Palin, displayed a map of the United States featuring 20 crosshair designs scattered over various states — 20 crosshairs meant to symbolize the 20 House Democrats thought to be politically vulnerable in November.

And if that ballistic metaphor isn’t enough, check her Twitter page. That’s where, in the wake of conservative defeat last weekend, Palin wrote: “Commonsense Conservatives & Lovers of America: Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD!”

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But there’s another element to all this. Clyburn’s sense of the pervasiveness of this attitude — “This stuff is not all that isolated,” he told MSNBC. “It's pretty widespread. I hope it's not too deep" — anticipates the reality documented in a March 2 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC report, the cover story of its quarterly Intelligence Report publication, documents “an astonishing 244 percent increase in the number of antigovernment Patriot groups in 2009.”

“At the same time,” the report reads, “nativist extremist groups have increasingly adopted ideas from the Patriot movement — demonstrating a cross-pollination between different segments of the radical right not seen in years.”

The threads, the links between the Tea Party, the Republican Party and the extremist right are a command of the lexicon of intolerance and a gauzy, generalized opposition to the federal government. But for the Republican Party — nominally the only grownup in the room, the one marginally respectable political group out of the three — these commonalities are dangerous.

With Tea Partiers spitting and shouting obscenities at people doing the people’s business; with Republicans vilifying the Democrats, with zealots like Palin and Tea Party darling Tom Tancredo dictating the terms of discourse, with Patriot groups metastasizing around the country … it’s now gut-check time for the Republicans. This is their opportunity to finally, formally decide what the GOP will be, what it will stand for, in the future. Nothing less than the party’s future hangs in the balance.

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It’s not enough to wag a finger in front of their faces saying, “bad, bad Tea Party,” which is what RNC Chairman Michael Steele attempted on NBC's "Meet the Press” on Sunday. “It's certainly not a reflection of the movement or the Republican Party when you have idiots out there saying stupid things,” he said.

Tea Party leadership tried much the same trick. "I absolutely think it's isolated," Amy Kremer, a Tea Party coordinator, told Fox News on Sunday. "It's disgraceful and the people in this movement won't tolerate it, because that's not what we're about."

But frankly, that’s boilerplate revulsion, day-late dollar-short statements more or less expected. It does nothing to change the evolving symbiotic philosophical relationship between the Republican Party, the Tea Party and the network of ad hoc malcontents the SPLC report warns us about.

Many of their talking points — smaller government, lower taxes, curbs on immigration, unfettered application of Second Amendment rights, an end to federal “intrusion” — are identical. Their demographics (almost uniformly white, largely rural, chronologically older) are, too.

When push comes to shove, there’s not much more than an inch of daylight between them. A Quinnipiac poll released on Wednesday seems to bear that out. The survey of self-described Tea Party members found that 74 percent of them vote or are leaning to vote for Republican candidates.

You’re not just known by the company you keep, you’re also known by the company that keeps you. In the wake of the recent incidents, the web of anti-government sympathies that bind mainstream and extremist is a huge problem for the Republicans in November. And one for the rest of the country right now.

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“We have seen a party of incoherent rage fused with its right-wing subculture, alien to logic and fact,” said The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel today on MSNBC, referencing the Republicans.

We’ve also seen what could be, if not for cooler heads prevailing somewhere, the twilight of the ideologues of the legislative right, and the rise of the extremist fringe to a frightening level of persuasion.

And we’ve seen what may be the start of a sociopolitical variation on a cynical cold-war strategy attributed to an American officer attending the destruction of the provincial capital of Ben Tre in February 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War. Associated Press correspondent Peter Arnett quoted the officer: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

The extremist-right movement in America, and their passive-aggressive enablers and proxies in the right-wing media and on Capitol Hill, are similarly engaged in a pursuit of a dangerous strategy that would destroy this nation in order to save it, for themselves.

That’s a bargain this nation should want no part of. Hopefully, we’ll see that in November.

Image credits: Tea Party protest signs: Via The Huffington Post. House Democrats target map: via Talking Points Memo. Carl Paladino: New York Daily News. Sarah Palin: Fox News. Twitter page: via The Huffington Post.

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