Thursday, 12 August 2010

After November: A Tea Party congress in America?

I just watched a somewhat bemused news story on French TV about Steven Slater, the US flight attendant who had had ENUF Monday, swearing at passengers before jumping out of a plane using the emergency slide. Apparently both sides of the Atlantic are in the full throes of the “silly season”, the term journalists use for the month of August when a lack of news results in an increased news focus on trivialities and non-stories. I myself am facing the daily frustration of having to write news stories at a time when no EU news is being made. Brussels basically shuts down in August and everyone takes their month-long vacations. Ah, Europe!

Consequently I don’t have much to write about for the blog either. So I thought I’d write a little something about the upcoming US midterm elections in November – since everyone keeps asking me about them. The spectre of them has had global implications in recent months, most notably in the Democratic leadership's decision to abandon the climate change bill because of fears its passage could anger voters before November. But the biggest effects of the election will be felt after November. It is looking ever more likely that the Democrats will lose their majority in the House of Representatives. And the new crop of ‘movement conservative’ Republicans that could be entering the congress will be the furthest to the right that the US has seen in decades. It could be an explosive result.

Midterm elections, so-called because they happen in the middle of a president’s four-year term, put the entire House of Representatives and 1/3 of the senate up for reelection (since House members must be re-elected every two years while senators only every six). Tuesday saw the last main batch of primary elections, where members of political parties pick who will run under their banner in November.  It’s now clear who each parties’ nominees are going to be. On the Democratic side, the party went with mostly moderate, establishment candidates – rejecting fiesty progressive candidates of the left who wanted to challenge what they see as the Obama administration’s betrayal of progressives. On the Republic side, moderate establishment candidates were almost universally rejected in favour of far-right “Tea Party” candidates. And this new crop of Republicans hold some pretty extreme views.

Just take a look at some of these Republican primary results. In Kentucky, Rand Paul, who says he would have voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act (which made it illegal to discriminate based on race) and has called President Obama’s criticism of BP “un-American”, beat the Republican party establishment’s pick Trey Grayson. In Nevada, Republican voters chose Sharron Angle, who has advocated taking up arms against the government, wants a complete scrapping of the welfare and unemployment systems and has said god appeared to her telling her to run for office, beat the party establishment’s candidate and will challenge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. This pattern was repeated on Tuesday in Colorado, Georgia and Connecticut, where a wrestling personality trounced the establishment Republican candidate, long-serving congressman Rob Simmons. Here MSNBC TV host Rachel Maddow sums up the situation:

So that’s the Republican class of 2010. The question is, can this rag-tag group of non-establishment candidates actually win, or are they too extreme for the general election? There’s one school of thought that says the Republican party, which has a natural advantage in this election because of the state of the economy and the fact that a president’s party always loses seats in a midterm, may have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by selecting these “Tea Party” candidates. According to this theory, someone like Sharon Engel or Rand Paul is not only well outside the mainstream of American public opinion, but is also too rough around the edges and will surely make a series of political gaffes between now and November. Both Engel and Paul have already made several major missteps, and the Republican Party has now forbid them from doing any interviews except on Fox News.

But the other school of thought is this – the extreme views that these non-establishment candidates hold would normally be unpalatable to American voters, but if there were any year to sneak them into congress, this is it. The mood among the electorate is disillusioned and angry. Unemployment remains intolerably high by American standards, and nobody is feeling the recovery. Many people have been riled up by campaigns of misinformation about the healthcare and financial system overhaul bills and are eager to vote against anyone who is “anti-Obama”.

At the same time many liberals are disillusioned with the president and the Democratic leadership because of their inability to enact meaningful reform, even while controlling all branches of government. The Democrats watered down every major piece of legislation they passed these past two years in order to get Republican votes that then never came. The healthcare bill ended up being little more than a moderate tinkering with the system, and the financial system “overhaul” does not go nearly far enough in addressing the regulatory holes that exist. And the Democrats were unable to take any action on climate change or ending the ban on gays in the military, both major promises of Obama’s campaign. This week White House press secretary Robert Gibbs further enraged the party’s liberal base when he told a newspaper that the "professional left" will only be satisfied "when we have Canadian healthcare and we've eliminated the Pentagon. That's not reality."

The comments were probably not an accident but rather a deliberate calculation, since the Obama administration is trying to shed the image the Conservative media has painted of it as an out-of-control far-left regime. Of course in reality nothing could be further from the truth, the Democrats have actually bent over backwards to please the minority party at every turn and watered down every initiative they proposed, most significantly in removing the “public option” from the healthcare reform bill. It’s a bizarre situation really. The White House has angered the Democratic base because it has not aggressively pursued the goals of the Left and instead sought to reach moderate compromise. The Republicans have refused to work with this compromise and instead spent the last two years convincing the public that the Democrats have adopted a “my way or the highway” approach and are pursuing a “far-left agenda”. So the White House must work to counter that criticism by distancing itself from the left, even after they’d already angered the left by failing to really deliver on the progressive promises of the campaign.

To the mainstream democracies of Europe this must all seem like absurd kabuki theatre. But in America, in the era of the “fact-free society”, this is politics in 2010. As the rest of the world takes action to grapple with the major problems we are facing, the US government is in complete paralysis, stuck in a swamp of misinformation and hysteria. Perhaps this clip from the Daily Show sums it up best:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
I Give Up - 9/11 Responders Bill
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party


Kallisti said...

I'm not a native English speaker so that might be the reason but I don't follow you regarding the snatching of victory:

"[..]the Republican party, which has a natural advantage[..]may have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat[..]"

Doesn't the phrase of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat imply that the Republicans where not expected to gain seats when now there is even speculation of gaining the House majority?

Personally, as one who opened a bottle of Champagne on election night, I'm in the "professional left" camp that Gibbs where talking about. Apart from the fact that you need some wins to keep the momentum and energy among your voters, the Democrats really needed to make a major health care reform.

The Republicans, and Tea partiers and Christian right even more, feed on fear, and, as I understand it, one of the major causes of financial uncertainty for people in the US is the insecurity of whether your insurance covers you if something happens. Missed opportunity that will just give more power to the short sighted people..

Gulf Stream Blues said...

Ah I meant the opposite of that expression! Thanks for pointing that out!

Anonymous said...

The TEA PARTY is the only 1 makig sense, we need to stop runaway gov and socialis dogma 2 save this country. IM proud to be a teabagger

Petri said...

Wow this is some really scary things. We were all so hopeful when Obama was elected. But maybe we forgot what kind of people he has to govern. They behave like infants, and believe anything anyone tells them. It's a disgrace.