Friday, May 21, 2010

The Tea Party (2009-2010)

Has there been a faster fall from relative political grace than the one Rand Paul has taken in the last 48 hours?

On Tuesday night, Paul, the eye doctor from Kentucky and son of libertarian icon Ron Paul, was astride the world of American politics, having won the Republican state primary for Senate, besting a challenger handpicked by the Senate Republican Leader. Paul, darling of Tea Party movement, threw down a gauntlet, essentially declaring his impressive win a shot across the bow of the Washington establishment. This was to be the Tea Party’s coming-out party, their long-awaited crossover into real national significance — with one of their own taking the lead in mainstreaming the movement before the eyes of the nation and the world.

Fast forward, just a hair, to Wednesday night. Paul, no doubt feeling his oats, went on the “Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC, and in a Q&A with perhaps the most incisive, blisteringly intelligent interviewer on television today, started the process of losing what he never had.

Paul was asked about his position (previously reported elsewhere) suggesting that Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — the section on "injunctive action" that makes illegal any discrimination by private business owners of patrons on the basis on their race — conflicted with his libertarian sense of the bright line between public and private entities. Paul was solid in his support of the idea that public institutions (those funded with taxpayer money) should absolutely be barred from such discrimination. Private businesses — lunch counters, restaurants, hotels, gas stations, stores of every kind? Not so much.

"Do you think that a private business has the right to say, 'we don't serve black people?'" he was asked by MSNBC's Rachel Maddow on Wednesday.

"Yes. I'm not in favor of any discrimination of any form," Paul said, cranking up on a long disquisition he used (in vain) to try and twist the issue by condemning limits of speech for everyone, including racists. "I don't want to be associated with those people, but I also don't want to limit their speech in any way in the sense that we tolerate boorish and uncivilized behavior, because that's one of the things freedom requires."

“Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant, or does the government own his restaurant?” he said rhetorically.

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In an NPR interview earlier in the day, Paul was asked whether the Civil Rights Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act, which protects the handicapped against discrimination in hiring and access to services, were indicators of federal overreach.

"Right. I think a lot of things could be handled locally," he said.

In an April interview with the Louisville (Ky.) Courier Journal, Paul was asked point-blank whether he would have supported Title II.

"I think it's a bad business to ever exclude anyone from your restaurant. But at the same time, I do believe in private ownership," he volunteered evasively.

It got worse. The Washington Post's David Riegel reported this on Thursday: “In a May 30, 2002, letter to the Bowling Green Daily News, Paul's hometown newspaper, he criticized the paper for endorsing the Fair Housing Act, and explained that "a free society will abide unofficial, private discrimination, even when that means allowing hate-filled groups to exclude people based on the color of their skin."

It’d be tempting to invoke the metaphor of Paul being thrown under the bus, except Paul, awaiting the outcome of his first political campaign, hasn’t even gotten on the bus yet. Already, GOP Rep. Jim DeMint, pigeonholed Thursday in Washington for a walking interview, was less than ringing in his endorsement of Paul’s position on the Civil Rights Act. “I’m going to talk to Rand about his position,” DeMint said.

Rep. Eric Cantor lost his customary frozen on-camera smile when discussing Paul on Fox News.

For his own part, Paul spent Thursday, less than two days after his first political triumph, walking back his previous positions. When asked directly by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer whether he would support his Civil Rights Act today, Paul volunteered a “yes” that was tepid and grudging at best. Teeth would have been easier to extract from Rand Paul’s head than a response that suggested anything like a real, basic, heartfelt support for one of the more socially significant pieces of legislation Congress has ever produced.

Rarely has an ophthalmologist had such poor vision.

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One hopes that Rand Paul and the various adherents of the Tea Party movement enjoyed their moment of mainstream glory on Tuesday night. For reasons that both precede and transcend Paul’s implosion in the days since Tuesday, his victory in Kentucky is likely to be as good as it’s gonna get for the TP crowd.

Paul’s great unraveling is just an indicator of the problems the Tea Party creates for the Republican Party, experiencing its greatest existential dilemma since, well, probably ever.

The Shock observed in February: "Credibility has been a problem for the Tea Party set. To this point, the TP’s followers have been characterized by a noisy intolerance that traffics in the symbols of don’t-tread-on-me populism married to silly exercises of self-identification (Tea Party members walked around last April wearing tea bags) and virulent intolerance (others carried signs that equated President Obama with Hitler)."

This fact, true in February, joins other problems for the Tea Party movement, including a fraudulence about its grassroots beginnings, and a relative lack of distinctions between itself and the Republican Party from whose loins it sprang last April.

Now, Rand Paul has complicated issues of Tea Party identity even more. His longstanding allegiance to libertarianism — the private, free-market philosophy that would roll back federal oversight in a variety of spheres of American life — had its follow-through on Wednesday and Thursday, when Paul suggested that federally-enforced protections against discrimination should be called into question, in fidelity to the idea that racial and ethnic bias is socially tolerable as long as it’s private entities doing the excluding.

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Paul’s two-day meltdown will be pretty much analogous to the collapse of the Tea Party movement, a movement that, for all of Paul’s success Tuesday, is not transferable to the nation as a whole. For all the thunder about Paul’s success, it can’t be overlooked that Paul’s triumph occurred in the state of Kentucky, a state that demographically and politically hews more conservative, and has, generally, for about 20 years.

The Tea Party can be expected to get some traction in Kentucky; a candidate can certainly get away with Paul’s thinking in the Arizona Territory (where John McCain’s challenger, J.D. Haworth, is a Tea Party stalwart) and in the most nativist of the southern states as well.

But there’s the rub for the TP crowd as it seeks to advance its political star: In discussing where Tea Party and GOP beliefs dovetail, the Tea Party is laying the groundwork for its own obsolescence.

Since so many Tea Party beliefs (smaller government, lower taxes, the primacy of traditional values) are already in lockstep with Republican doctrine, when the differences between the Tea Party and the GOP are ironed out between now and November (and they will be), at that moment the Tea Party will be at the expiration date of its insurgent usefulness. The Tea Party — as emotionally symbolized by the extremists busy calling President Obama everything but a child of God, as philosophically defined by a novice politician who thinks it’s OK for private businesses to have the option to discriminate on the basis of skin color — will practically cease to exist.

Which means Rand Paul’s win on Tuesday is probably as good as the Tea Party gets in the 2010 election cycle. Whether Paul wins or not, the TP movement’s gravitas is no danger to spread like some populist wildfire across the country. The demographics for such growth aren’t there (the highly visible extremists in its ranks have seen to that). The leaders with vision aren’t there. The message hasn’t been there, either. From the day of the first Tax Day Tea Bag rally in April 2009, the foundational talking points of the Tea Party have been discontent, outrage and willful mischaracterization of anyone who gets in their way. That's thin wood to build a broad-based constituency with, or to build a political platform to stand on.

Reserve your limousine for the funeral procession early: As the more palatable Tea Party ideas are subsumed into the Republican platform, the Tea Party will have lost the oxygen it needs to remain a viable, freestanding political movement. That’s when the Tea Party functionally disappears.

Image credit: Rand Paul: Still from MSNBC. Tea Party protest sign: Via The Huffington Post. Tea Bag Tax Day protester: Still from MSNBC.

1 comment:

  1. If this is what the Tea Party really means when the talk about "smaller government"
    they are doomed.

    Trying to sabotage 50 years of civil rights and set back the clock on racial discrimination under the guise of "property rights" will blow up in their faces.

    If Teabaggers think this country is going back to Jim Crow, they have another thing coming.

    That's the problem with the Tea Party. They say they aren't racist. They are just against Big Government.
    Then in the next breath they say that a private business should have the right to exclude black people. That's democracy

    Well, I don't want to live in that type of "democratic society" where a company can refuse to hire someone because they are black, female, old, or ugly.

    Believe it or not there are still countries where it is perfectly ok to place and ad that says

    "Wanted: Secretary. Must be female , attractive and under 40 years of age."


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