BY CHRIS SZABLA
During the 2008 election campaign, Barack Obama ’91 crowed to no end about reuniting the country and achieving bipartisanship – while simultaneously promising such stock sundries of Democratic Party politics as universal health care and improved education. I remember being somewhat surprised that anyone who remembered the Clinton administration – i.e., most of the voting population – could have fallen for this possibility, having witnessed the torpedoing of the Clintons’ agenda by the Republican majority that took control of Congress in 1994. After the inauguration, and a good portion of the pundit class began to believe this skepticism had been warranted. The Obama administration would sacrifice its mandate for sweeping change, they thought, on the high altar of playing nice.
The Obama faithful implored skeptics to have patience – their messiah was luring obstructionist Republicans into a trap. And so it was. Republicans decried the lack of oversight for recent bank bailouts, only to be reminded that most were initiated under the absent-minded leadership of George W. Bush. Pressed for alternative solutions, they called for tax policies of the type that had already accelerated and exacerbated the existing crisis. Called upon for a strategic vision, they lamented the “big government spending” they had approved during the Bush years, proving their economic ineptitude by publishing a budget – with no numbers. The erstwhile emperors who had once hoped to preside over a “permanent Republican majority” were finally exposed as having no clothes.
The ineptitude of the Republicans’ congressional leadership left a power vacuum open on the U.S. right. So conservatives beat a retreat to the spin room, cradling itself in the comfort of the echo chamber, convinced that ideology, rather than argument, would get them through. Without political opponents to call them out in the halls of Congress, conservatives appearing on Fox News did not need to explain their opposition to President Obama’s stimulus package – they simply needed to present it as a decontextualized piece of ideological malevolence (“socialism”). Only by divorcing the present economic crisis from recent history or reasoned debate could it be remotely logical to continue to mount a defense on the basis of the Republicans’ own ideological war horse: tax cuts.
Hence the tea party phenomenon – gleefully mocked, far and wide, as “teabagging”. Fox News breathlessly reported the outbreak of spontaneous “rebellions” against high taxes across the country. Hundreds of letters arrived in D.C. bearing teabags intended to send a message to the White House and Congress – only to be blocked by mail safety monitors weary of anthrax threats. Why “tea parties”? The “rebels” hoped to compare themselves to the Boston brouhaha over taxes on East India tea that was one of the first rumblings of American Revolution.
But while the Boston Tea Party’s mantra was “no taxation without representation,” the tea party protesters hardly acknowledged that their distress emanated from their position in the extreme political minority – or that it made no sense in the current economic climate. In fact, most were actually seeing a tax decrease in Obama’s budget, which made good on his campaign promise of relief for earners of under $250,000 a year. Obama explained this in a speech on his economic policies at Georgetown University this Monday, making them sound so simple and obvious that it sounded like he was auditioning to be a middle school math teacher.
Far be it for Fox News to report this discrepancy. Last week, cable news outlets were bemoaning Obama’s “predictable” cuts in the defense budget. In actuality, his budget raised DoD spending by 4%. There was no cut, but a restructuring – away from the development of expensive hardware, including the Cold War fantasy of stealth ships, and toward flexible special operations units like the Navy SEALs who dispatched three intransigent pirates off the coast of Somalia on Sunday.
The reminder that U.S. troops had the ability to parachute into waters worldwide must have set off alarm bells among the “black helicopters” crowd, already engaged in one of the largest gun-buying orgies in history. Uneasy about a Democratic president they believe is bent on “socialism,” they have threatened to form militias and head for the hills. There’s another element of déjà vu in this – the Clinton era was also the time of Waco’s Branch Davidians, Ruby Ridge, and the Oklahoma City bombing. Perhaps that’s why the Department of Homeland Security recently released a report warning that right-wing extremism was beginning to pose as great a threat as any security threat external to the U.S. Their vigilance was tragically confirmed by the recent shooting of several police officers in Pittsburgh; the perpetrator was found raving about “socialism” under Obama.
The writing was on the wall when Sarah Palin’s vice presidential candidacy was cheered by people who apparently found the aerial slaughter of endangered species an admirable quality in a leader. For eight years, their bloodthirstiness has been quenched by cheering on external wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – and, perhaps, the occasional Mexican shot by a freelance border patrol “Minuteman” (another abuse of the Revolutionary War metaphor – the actual Minutemen fought the British army, not unarmed immigrants). Perhaps Bush was right – “we fight [extremists] abroad so we do not have to fight them at home” – but was only wrong about which extremists the U.S. would be fighting.
Compare Democrats’ behavior when in the opposition to Republicans’. Democrats rolled over for the Bush agenda, kowtowing to the Iraq War and lax financial regulations. Outside Congress, liberals contented themselves to the occasional peaceful protest, punny bumper sticker, or polite op-ed. Their most extreme acts of protest and defiance were threats to move to Canada. The right wing, meanwhile, has been dethroned for nary one hundred days, and, facing the threat of a modest uptick in infrastructure investment that is not even leftist enough for establishment figures like Nobel-winning Princeton economist Paul Krugman, prepares for war. Revolution – figurative, in the case of the tea parties, or otherwise, in the case of more dangerous elements, sticks to their tongues. One commenter wrote to the New York Times’ alarmed Bob Herbert that his neighbors, former military men, were planning to road block their Atlanta neighborhood and institute a ” system of summary justice” when the uprising was set to occur.
Obama skeptics need no longer fear – bipartisanship is off the table, but not at his behest. Pirates on a rampage with higher stakes that the one unfolding off the Horn of Africa are holding it hostage. Perhaps a new Repiublican movement, led by intellectuals in the mold of David Brooks and George F. Will, and modeled on the social conservatism of popular British Tory leader David Cameron, could carry away enough of the Obama consensus – and siphon away enough right-wingers’ anger – to make conservatism a viable and reasonable participant in government again. If this happens, Obama will have succeeded in shifting the middle ground of American politics to the left – and will both have the cake of his campaign promises, and eat it too.
Chris Szabla is Managing Editor of the Harvard Law Record