With the breakdown of negotiations on a so-called grand bargain on the debt limit demanded by President Obama, liberal commentators have sought a convenient scapegoat to account for the impasse. Not surprisingly, they have begun by rounding up the usual suspect: the Tea Party. Its intransigence, so the line goes, has sunk this great deal.
For two years now, “Blame the Tea Party First” has been the Democrats’ favorite mantra. “Firsters” invoke the Tea Party to make sense–for themselves–of the otherwise inexplicable fact of large-scale public opposition to President Obama, and they hold the Tea Party responsible for many of the nation’s deeper problems, from incivility in our discourse to an inability to set aside intransigent partisanship.
Generosity in describing one’s foes is a rarity, especially among conspiracy theorists. But Firsters have carried their animus against the Tea Party to unprecedented heights by failing to credit it with what is today right before everyone’s eyes. Without the Tea Party, there would be no debt limit negotiations going on, just as there would have been no budget reduction deal last December. Without the Tea Party, President Obama would not be posing as the judicious statesman, but would be pushing –as in truth he still is–for more stimulus and further investments in high-speed rail. Whatever pressure now exists to treat the debt problem derives directly or indirectly from the explosion of energy that has been generated by the Tea Party.
In lambasting the Tea Party movement for its stubborness, Firsters have silently acknowledged what for two years they had all but denied. Instead of being in fact a front for racism or opposition to abortion, the “baggers,” as they have been derisively called, are genuinely insistent on cutting spending and containing the growth of government. Everything is less complicated than it seems. Supporters of the Tea Party are who they said they were.
A stroll down memory lane provides a reminder of the Firsters’ shifting characterizations of the Tea Party. About the only constant in their analysis has been its political opportunism. The baggers have been charged with seven deadly sins.
1. They are uneducated poor racists. All honor for this accusation goes to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who referred to the grassroots movement as “astroturf,” comprised of swastika-carrying radicals. Since then others have joined in: Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson saw “no coincidence” in “the birth of a big, passionate national movement — overwhelmingly white and lavishly funded — that tries its best to delegitimize… the first African-American president.”
2. They are uneducated poor dupes. In this description, the racism is not denied, but it is almost beside the point; the real issue is that Big Money has been manipulating the ignorant and gullible masses. Paul Krugman, the Nobel-prize- winning economist turned film-critic, offered this helpful advice to Tea Party activists in the New York Times,: “This is not the movie you think it is. You probably imagine you’re starring in ‘The Birth of a Nation’ but you’re actually just extras in a remake of ‘Citizen Kane’…[in which Kane] just puts politicians on his payroll.”
3. They are privileged whites who don’t want to pay their fair share. As poll evidence started to show, Tea Party supporters were not as poor or as dumb as was initially thought. On the contrary–for this CBS/NewYork Times Poll, at any rate– they were older, wealthier, and better educated than the general public. Never mind. Firsters just adjusted the image, having it that these people just wanted to protect their own, indulging, as Harold Meyersson would have it, in a “politics of racial resentment and the fury that the country is no longer only theirs.”
4. They are folks with understandable concerns, but they don’t comprehend what will solve our problems. This is probably the most sympathetic and patronizing treatment of the Tea Party, and it gained ground as the size of the Tea Party itself became apparent. It had to be treated now with some delicacy. Yes, Firsters acknowledged, these are mostly good and decent people–they may even care dearly about their children–but they need some guidance. In the time-honored tradition of legislators to revise and resubmit their remarks, Nancy Pelosi now began to find common turf with the Tea Party: “We share some of the views of the Tea Partiers.” The president let it be known “that there are strains in the Tea Party that are troubled by what they saw as a series of instances in which the middle-class and working-class people have been abused or hurt by special interests and Washington, but their anger is misdirected.”
5. They are just the old-conservatives rebranded. This is the Ecclesiastes argument, that there is nothing new under the sun. Although slightly angrier than other conservatives, and maybe just a little bit more libertarian, in fact they are pretty much “full spectrum” conservatives concerned not only with fiscal issues but social issues. They offer nothing different than the Republican Party of old. According to a New York Times sketch of the movement, “They do not want a third party and say they usually or almost always vote Republican.” Almost six in ten went so far as to hold a favorable opinion of former President Bush.
6. They are parts of a fragile and conflicting coalition. This charge, like the last one, brought some consolation, as it indicated that the movement was weaker than thought and would not be able to withstand the test of holding together in real votes. Scholars took the lead on this characterization, with a team led by Harvard Professor Theda Skocpol arguing that the “affection of grassroots Tea Partiers for major programs like Social Security is at odds with the policies pushed by many of the elite national organizations that fund their protests.”
7. Supporters are historical fetishists, concerned with quaint and outmoded things like the principles of the Revolution and the Constitution. E.J. Dionne, one of the first Firsters, has been long lecturing the Tea Party folks that they have been serving the wrong part of history, 1773, rather than the Constitution, which was a pro-government document. He recently lectured his “friends in the Tea Party” that they are “drawing all the wrong conclusions” which will lead to “some remarkably foolish choices.” Jill Lapore, professor of history at Harvard who has written a full length book on the movement, goes a step further than Dionne, condemning the movement for the folly of an “originalism” that would seek to apply directly the ideas of yesteryear, even if correctly understood, to today. She would evidently throw out of court, as would Dionne, the originalism of one Tea Party supporter who had the temerity to offer this application of the Founders’ political system: “I’m sick and tired of them wasting money and doing what our founders never intended to be done with the federal government.”
Despite the accident of its name, the Tea Party is not a political party, but a political movement, according to Peter Berkowitz, “one of the most spectacular grass roots political movements in American history.” A feature of such movements in American politics, whether on the Left or the Right, is that they are unformed and inchoate. Their boundaries–who is in and who is out–remain ill-defined, as there is no authoritative organizational structure that exercises control of the “members.” It’s therefore almost always possible for interested investigators to find, somewhere, what they are looking for. So the Tea Party movement has had its share of ideologues (Ron Paul) and flakes (Christine O’Donnell)–although the same might be said, respectively, of the Democratic Party’s Sheila Jackson Lee and Anthony Weiner.
Given the porousness of the movement, any serious analysis demands perspective and discipline, qualities that in political commentary today are in short supply. What Firsters have instead provided is a grab bag of charges from which they pick the one that best fits the need of the moment. On some days it may be that the Tea Partiers, as Michele Bachmann so colorfully expressed it, are a bunch of “toothless hillbillies coming down out of the hills,” on others that they are some country-club Republicans teeing up for a round of golf. One moment the movement is weak and fragile, another it has captured the Republican Party, which, according to David Brooks, “has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative.” Where these characterizations do not undermine themselves by contradiction, they often amaze by their absurdity. In the most malicious and persistent charge–that of racism, which serves as a prophylactic to protect O’bama from any criticism–the evidence offered is a small number of African Americans in the movement. But how many African Americans, already the most liberal group in America, should one expect to join a movement opposing Barack Obama? And of course when one does, like Herman Cain, and upon a strong showing in a debate wins the respect of the hordes of racists, he immediately becomes subject to the most unseemly attacks by those free of any hint of racial prejudice.
In this week’s controversy, Firsters are promoting the narrative of Barack Obama as the great statesman of the hour, willing to go the extra mile for a great bargain. Somewhere and sometime, according to this fantastic account, Obama experienced an 11th-hour conversion to spending restraint. Only no one–no one–has seen or knows what he wants. It is the phantom of the budget, staged with wondrous smoke and mirrors and accompanied by the old refrain, now growing stale by repetition, of Obama worship. We are witnessing the sorry spectacle of high-minded commentators, who only recently were chanting in unison for greater transparency in our politics, and who now bite like a school of perch at the cheap plastic lures and leaks being tossed out by White House flaks. These are men and women without an ounce of pride in either themselves or their craft.
At the end of the day, the choice the nation faces is pretty clear–even if both sides will at one day face a point of reckoning. One side wishes a more constrained federal government and greater austerity in our welfare programs. It will hold or cut these programs to the point where it finds it cannot go much further, at which time other remedies may need to be considered. If one wants a model for this approach, it is necessary to look no further than the policies of some of the red-state governments (or Great Britain). The other side wishes a federal government at and beyond the level of 2008 and beyond the current level. If one wants a model for this approach, the blue-state of Illinois or California will do just fine. This side will continue to maintain and expand government, cutting national defense to the bone and adding more “revenues,” up to the point it becomes literally unsustainable. That point has not been reached yet.
This is the choice the nation faces. As of 2011, it has not been definitively made. Perhaps 2012 will be the year of the Tea Party.
James W. Ceaser is professor of politics at the University of Virginia and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. John York is a graduate student in politics at the University of Virginia.
Blaming It All On the Tea Party
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Expect the impossible.
If the 2016 presidential election cycle demonstrated anything, it was that Republicans suffer from a crippling lack of imagination. That ordeal should have established that the unprecedented is not impossible. Even now, Republicans seem as though they are trying to convince themselves that their eyes are lying to them, but they are not. The tempo of the investigation into President Trump is accelerating, and a nightmare scenario is eminently imaginable. Only congressional Republicans can avert disaster, and only then by being clear about the actions they are prepared to take if Trump instigates a crisis of constitutional legitimacy.
The events of the last 36 hours unrolled like a cascade. Late Wednesday, the New York Times published an interview in which Trump delivered a stinging rebuke for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, scolding him for recusing himself from the investigation into the campaign’s ties to Russian operatives. In that interview, Trump appeared to warn special counselor Robert Mueller not to dig too deeply into his personal finances, or else.
Hours later, Bloomberg News revealed that Mueller’s probe was investigating Trump’s business transactions and tax records—a leak surely made in response to Trump’s arm-twisting. More leaks from the investigation confirmed that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was being investigated for involvement in a money-laundering scheme, a revelation made more discomfiting by the discovery that he owed pro-Russian interests $17 million before joining the Trump campaign.
With the noose tightening, the lead attorney on Trump’s personal defense team, Marc Kasowitz, and the legal team’s spokesperson, Mark Corallo, resigned. The Washington Post reported that “Trump has asked his advisers about his power to pardon aides, family members and even himself in connection with the probe.” Trump’s spokespeople insist the president has no intention of pursuing the dismissal of the special counsel investigating his campaign, but his every action indicates that this is a lie.
Prominent Republicans reacted to all this incredulously. “There is no possible way anybody at the White House could be seriously thinking about firing Mueller,” Sen. Bob Corker insisted. “We all know the president,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch. “He makes some of these comments that he really doesn’t mean.” Sen. Susan Collins was willing to go a bit farther: “It would be catastrophic if the President were to fire the special counsel.”
Off the record, however, Republican lawmakers are far less circumspect in relaying their fears about what the president is capable of doing to the republic. “Any thought of firing the special counsel is chilling. It’s chilling,” an unnamed GOP senator told CNN. “One gets the impression that the President doesn’t understand or he willfully disregards the fact that the attorney general and law enforcement in general—they are not his personal lawyers to defend and protect him,” another added.
These tepid comments for the record, with courage reserved only upon condition of anonymity, expose how Republicans in Congress have again failed to meet the measure of the moment. These are dangerous days, and it is incumbent upon Donald Trump’s party in Congress to deter the executive branch from overstepping its authority. The only way to do that is to be clear about what the consequences for that kind of transgression will be.
The Congressional Research Service defines how the president could execute a nuclear option against the independent counsel’s office. The Attorney General has recused himself from campaign-related investigations, so Trump would have to insist Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein remove Mueller. If Rosenstein declined, his resignation would likely be on offer, and his acting replacement (Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand) would have to field the same request. At this point, the comparisons between the Trump White House’s behavior and that of the Nixon administration ahead of the 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre” are no longer hyperbolic.
In lieu of any ability to contain or control the special counsel’s office, Trump’s defenders have mounted a public relations campaign designed to undermine its authority and discredit its members. That will rally Trump’s diehard supporters, but the president remains unsatisfied. National Review’s Rich Lowry speculated convincingly that Trump would have little choice but to move against Mueller. Sooner rather than later, the conditions the president said would force his hand—a probe of Trump’s personal finances—will be met. Lowry observed that Trump seems to believe his tax records and business practices should be off limits and his experience has taught him “that fortune favors the recklessly bold.”
Republicans in Congress must stop comforting themselves with the notion that the worst cannot happen. They have to summon the courage to state publicly what they so freely tell reporters on background. If they are so concerned that the norms and traditions that have preserved the rule of law in this republic for 240 years are in jeopardy, they must say so. And they must say what the consequences will be for Trump, his associates, and his family if he goes too far. Republicans in office are disinclined to pursue a course of action against Trump that might jeopardize their standing with the voters who love him. None of that matters. Prioritizing their parochial careerist considerations over the best interests of their party and their country is how they got themselves into this mess.
Republicans may dislike the prospect, but it’s fast becoming time for them to start saying the “I” word if only to save the president from his most reckless impulses. The longer they tell themselves that the unthinkable is impossible, the more likely it becomes.
Are the warplane's secrets safe?
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the newest generation air platform for the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marines. Lockheed-Martin, which builds the F-35, describes it as “a 5th Generation fighter, combining advanced stealth with fighter speed and agility, fully fused sensor information, network-enabled operations and advanced sustainment.” For both diplomatic reasons and to encourage sales, Lockheed-Martin subcontracted the production of many F-35 components to factories abroad. Many program partners—Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Denmark, for example—are consistent U.S. allies.
Turkey, however, is also part of the nine-nation consortium producing the plane, which gives Turkey access to the F-35’s technology. “As a program partner, Turkish industries are eligible to become suppliers to the global F-35 fleet for the life of the program. In total, F-35 industrial opportunities for Turkish companies are expected to reach $12 billion,” the warplane’s website explained. “Turkey plans to purchase 100 of the F-35A Conventional Takeoff and Landing variant. Its unsurpassed technological systems and unique stealth capabilities ensure that the F-35 will be the future of Turkish national security for decades to come.”
But is the F-35 safe with Turkey? In recent years, the Turkish government has leaked highly-classified information to America’s adversaries in fits of diplomatic pique. Back in 2013, for example, Turkey leaked to the Iranians the identities of Israeli spies in Iran. Danny Yatom, former head of the Mossad, told USA Today that the incident would damage U.S. intelligence efforts, “because we will be much more reluctant to work via Turkey because they will fear information is leaking to Iran… We feel information achieved [by Israel] through Turkey went not only to Israel but also to the United States.”
On July 19, the Pentagon criticized Turkey’s state-controlled news agency for exposing ten covert U.S. bases in Syria in a way that can enable both the Islamic State and Iranian-backed forces to target Americans. Bloomberg reported that the leak also detailed aid routes and equipment stored at each base.
Both these incidents raise serious questions about whether Turkey can be trusted with the F-35, especially given Turkey’s growing military and diplomatic ties to Russia, and the wayward NATO state’s recent cooperation with China as well. The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense is rightly concerned about the security implications of a plan to service its F-35s in Turkey, but such concern should only be the tip of the iceberg.
Should Turkey even receive F-35s and, to the extent the program relies on Turkish factories, is it time to stand up quickly a Plan B? To do otherwise might squander the billions of dollars already spent on the program, risk increasing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ability to blackmail the West, and potentially land America’s latest military technology on Kremlin desks.
Too many martyrs make a movement.
If the GOP is to be converted into a vehicle for politicians who evince Donald Trump’s brand of pragmatic center-right populism, Trump will have to demonstrate his brand of politics can deliver victories for people other than himself. Presidential pen strokes help to achieve that, as do judicial appointments. Nothing is so permanent, though, as sweeping legislative change. On that score, the newly Trumpian Republican Party is coming up short. If the passive process of transformational legislative success fails to compel anti-Trump holdouts in the GOP to give up the ghost, there is always arm-twisting. It seems the Republican National Committee is happy to play enforcer.
The RNC’s nascent effort to stifle anti-Trump apostasy by making examples of high-profile heretics has claimed its first victim: New Jersey’s Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno. The Republican is running to replace the nation’s least popular governor, Chris Christie, and the effort has been a struggle. Trailing badly in the polls and facing the headwinds associated with trying to succeed an unpopular outgoing GOP governor in a blue state, Guadagno needs all the help she can get. That help won’t be coming from the RNC. According to NJ Advance Media, the committee’s objection to helping Guadagno isn’t the imprudence of throwing good money after bad. It’s that she was mean to President Trump in 2016, and she must be punished.
“[The president] is unhappy with anyone who neglected him in his hour of need,” said a source billed as an RNC insider. The specific complaint arises from an October 8 tweet from the lieutenant governor said that “no apology can excuse” Trump’s “reprehensible” conduct on the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape. “Christie was not as stalwart as some people in the party, but at least he didn’t go against him the way she did,” the insider added.
This source’s version of events was supported by former two-term New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman. “She went down there, and the (Republican National) Committee was reluctant to back the campaign in the way one would have expected,” she said. “The implication was, ‘Well you were not a Trump supporter in the primary, and so don’t expect much money.'”
This is almost certainly a pretext. Republicans are facing stiff competition and an unfavorable political environment in November’s gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey. In 2017-2018, 27 GOP-held seats are up for grabs, nine of which are in some jeopardy of falling to Democrats. Republicans are going to have to husband their resources and triage their officeholders. That’s a forgivable, if demoralizing, condition. Declaring Guadagno to have offended the leader and to be cut off from the font of Republican goodwill is not only unjustifiable, it’s terribly foolish.
If Republican women are to be punished for saying that Trump’s comments about sexually assaulting unsuspecting females were unacceptable, there are going to be a lot fewer Republican women. Moreover, the RNC has invited the perception that there is a double standard at play here. A slew of Republicans called on Trump to drop out of the race after that tape, but the RNC is unlikely to withhold support for Senators Rob Portman or John Thune when they need it. Among those calling on Trump to drop out was his own chief of staff, Reince Priebus—a fact the president reportedly won’t let Priebus forget.
Cults of personality can be bullied into existence, but they rarely outlast the personality around whom they form unless that personality can claim some lasting achievements. In lieu of any compelling rationale, the effort to remake the GOP in Trump’s image by force will only create dissidents. The ideological conservatives who once dominated the Republican Party are unlikely to make peace with the ascendant populist faction at gunpoint. And the RNC is not solely to blame for this boneheaded move. Even if the notion that Guadagno is being punished for disloyalty is a pretense, it is a response to a clear set of incentives promoted by this White House.
Maybe the most intriguing question of the present political age is whether or not conservatives in the GOP will come to terms with a man they once saw as a usurper. A heavy hand will only catalyze resistance, and Trump needs his own party as much or more than they need him. Guadagno’s gubernatorial bid is on no firmer ground today than it was yesterday, but the Republican candidate’s allies can now legitimately claim persecution at the hands of personality cultists. Too many martyrs make a movement. The White House and the Republican National Committee should tread lightly.
Podcast: Conservatism in shackles while O.J. goes free?
On the second of this week’s podcasts, I ask Abe Greenwald and Noah Rothman whether the health-care debacle this week is simply a reflection of the same pressures on the conservative coalition Donald Trump saw and conquered by running for president last year—and what it will mean for him and them that he has provided no rallying point for Republican politicians. And then we discuss OJ Simpson. Give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
Hyperbole yields cynicism, not the other way around.
Newly-elected French President Emmanuel Macron surprised almost everyone when he invited President Donald Trump to celebrate Bastille Day with him in Paris, especially after the two leaders’ awkward first meeting in Brussels in May. After all, between now and then, Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, and Macron has become perhaps the most vocal critic of Trump among European leaders.
In hindsight, Macron’s reason for embracing Trump might have been to get the president to reverse course on the Paris agreement. From the Associated Press:
French President Emmanuel Macron says his glamorous Paris charm offensive on Donald Trump was carefully calculated — and may have changed the U.S. president’s mind about climate change…. On their main point of contention — Trump’s withdrawal from the landmark Paris climate agreement — Macron is quoted as saying that “Donald Trump listened to me. He understood the reason for my position, notably the link between climate change and terrorism.”
According to Macron, climate change causes droughts and migration, which exacerbates crises as populations fight over shrinking resources. If Macron really believes that, France and Europe are in for some tough times.
First, droughts are a frequent, cyclical occurrence in the Middle East, the Sahel, and the Horn of Africa. The difference between drought and famine is the former is a natural occurrence and the latter is man-made, usually caused by poor governance. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the Horn of Africa, where the same drought might kill a few dozens of Ethiopians but wipe out tens of thousands of Somalis.
Second, the common factor in the wars raging in the Middle East today is neither climate change nor extreme weather, but brutal dictatorship, radical ideologies, and the militias supported by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Yemen could be a breadbasket. Its terraced fields rising up thousands of feet in the mountains grow almost every fruit imaginable. Yemen also catches the tail end of the monsoon. If Yemenis planted exportable crops like coffee rather than the mild drug qat, which does not bring in hard currency, they might be fairly prosperous.
It is not climate change that denied the Syrian public basic freedoms and liberty for decades, nor was it climate change that dropped barrel bombs on civilian neighborhoods, tortured and killed 13-year-old Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, or used chemical weapons. For that matter, when it comes to radicalization, the problem is Syria was less climate and more decades of Saudi-and Qatari-funded indoctrination and Turkish assistance to foreign fighters.
Regardless of all this, another obvious factor nullifies Macron’s thesis: When drought occurs in regions outside the Middle East, the result is seldom suicide bombing.
Terrorism does not have a one-size-fits-all explanation but, generally speaking, when it comes to Islamist terrorism, ideology plays a key role. Most terrorists are educated, middle class, and relatively privileged. Islamic State caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, for example, has a Ph.D. Many of the 9/11 hijackers were educated. In the Gaza Strip, Hamas recruits inside schools. Simply put, there is no linkage between climate change and terrorism.
Not only would Trump be foolish to buy Macron’s argument, but environmentalists who believe climate change puts the Earth in immediate peril should be outraged. It is hyperbole. Moreover, it is the casual invocation of climate change as a catch-all cause for every other issue that breeds the cynicism that leads so many to become so dismissive of everything climate activists say. Macron may look down up Trump as an ignorant bore, but Macron’s own logic suggests he is also living in a world where facts and reality don’t matter.