“We’re All Mad Here:” Tea Parties, Scott Brown, The GOP, And Some Tom Petty

This post is a jumble of thoughts from various bloggers, many center-right, about Scott Brown, the tea parties and the future of the GOP.

Scott Brown in the Boston Globe:

Like everyone else, I want to see more Americans with good health care coverage. I like what we achieved in Massachusetts. It’s not perfect, but nearly everyone is now covered by a private insurance policy – not a government policy. I hope other states follow our example.

But the healthcare bill under discussion in Washington is not good. It will raise taxes and increase spending. If you are a senior on Medicare, it will lead to a half trillion dollars in cuts to your care. Since we are way ahead of the rest of the country with our own state reforms, we will get nothing in return. My opponent, Martha Coakley, will vote yes on this bill. I will insist we start over.

Failure should be admitted in Washington, and not repeated. With last month’s news that we lost another 85,000 jobs, and with unemployment stuck in the double digits, it’s time to admit that while the $787 billion stimulus had the best of intentions, it failed to create one new job. We shouldn’t pass yet another stimulus that adds to the debt without adding jobs.

My plan for the economy is simple: an across-the-board tax cut – in the tradition of John F. Kennedy – for families and businesses that will increase investment and lead to immediate new job growth. More tax increases will hurt our recovery. That’s why I have taken a no-new-tax pledge. My opponent will raise taxes.

Andrew Sullivan:

Does anyone see the contradiction here? Without any tax increases, indeed with more tax cuts, the spending reductions required to reduce the debt will be fantastic: massive cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, and defense. Where does he outline these spending measures? Nowhere. Fiscally, he’s as fraudulent as Bush.

More absurdity here:

It’s time to admit that while the $787 billion stimulus had the best of intentions, it failed to create one new job.

Even if you believe that stimuli are wasteful or inefficient, I know of no sane economist who believes that $800 billion did not create one new job.

Then he’s in favor of the Massachusetts universal health insurance reform, on which Obama’s is based, but for some reason against the one for the country. Why?

But the healthcare bill under discussion in Washington is not good. It will raise taxes and increase spending. If you are a senior on Medicare, it will lead to a half trillion dollars in cuts to your care.

So Brown supports health care exchanges, a mandate, and universal care … but opposes healthcare exhcanges, a mandate and universal care. He is worried about the debt but actually opposes the proposed cuts in Medicare that can make universal insurance affordable – let alone the cuts necessary to bring us back from the fiscal abyss.

He is, in other words, a parody of the brainless bush Republican, mixed with Romney-like cynicism.

E.D. Kain:

I have trouble understanding where Sullivan is coming from with a post like this one, criticizing Scott Brown’s apparently “mindless op-ed” by cherry-picking everything he can find that casts Brown in a poor light.  Certainly some of Brown’s points in his op-ed are little more than standard GOP boilerplate.  But the thing about boilerplate is that it accurately represents the views of a very large group of people.  Cutting taxes is not in and of itself wrong-headed, however unsurprising the idea may be.  Certainly it’s not as wrong-headed as raising taxes would be right now before a significant economic recovery, and with unemployment in the double digits.

While the op-ed doesn’t address spending issues explicitly, it’s not as though Republicans or Brown in particular are calling for more spending.  Perhaps spending cuts aren’t the best idea in the midst of a recession any more than hiking taxes. Additionally, one of the reasons Brown states for his opposition to the healthcare reform bill is its increased spending and tax burden.  Perhaps he should also be proposing ways to cut current spending, but certainly there is nothing inconsistent with opposing future spending either.

Sullivan objects to calls for tax cuts because that will, essentially, starve the beast, leading to “massive cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, and defense.”  That this is not stated explicitly in Brown’s op-ed is immaterial.  Republicans have long believed that cutting taxes will lead to cutting spending.  What they need to do now is elect fiscal conservatives instead of people like George W. Bush.  These cuts, after all, will be necessary unless we decide to shift course and adopt a social democratic model which I’m not sure the U.S. is ready to do at this point in history.

Moreover, judging the present policy positions of Republicans based on the poor fiscal record of George W. Bush is an odd approach.  Few Republicans will tell you that they are proud of the spending record during the eight years of the Bush administration. It seems like a strange response to that to say that because of their past failures to rein in spending, any present or future attempts to block Democratic legislative agendas are simply hypocritical.  Should they instead eschew fiscal conservatism altogether?  I fail to see the logic in this.



You literally lost me at literally the first sentence.

So allow me to explain why you have trouble understanding. It’s because your understanding of politics in general and the issues at stake here specifically are at the very least naive, and in this case, bordering on juvenile.

No matter how talented you are, and you are, or thoughtful, and you are that, too, and of sincere good will, also, I conclude, you don’t get it.

It’s not about Brown being the kind of candidate you’d like in isolation and all else being equal, or the fact that Coakley is a bad candidate. It’s about the system–or, better, systems. A political system that’s almost dysfuctional if it isn’t already trying to fix a health system that is already dysfunctional and utterly unsustainable.

Your argument reduces to this “Because Martha Coakly is a crappy candidate, therefore the health care system should collapse in five years or so.”

That is beyond juvenile, it’s crazy, particularly in light of all your other HCR blogging.

One substantive comment, and one kinda personal. On this:

… the good people of Massachusetts have worked hard to create a system that works for them and they’d rather not have a system they fear will be more expensive and less efficient rammed down their throats.

I happen to be one of those people and without reservation reject that argument. It’s fundamentally the same argument Ben Nelson used to defend the Cornhusker deal. You’re saying the people of MA should be as narrow-mindedly focused on their own parochial interest to the detriment of the best interests of the nation. And I reject that defense. Reform will NEVER HAPPEN if every stakeholder at a possible veto point zealously guards whatever interest they think is at stake.

Finally, I want you know that I really like your writing and thinking a lot–as I suspect Sully does, too. You gots yourself a future, man. But I’m wondering if one of the reasons Sully likes you is that he sees a lot of his young self in your writing: bright, thoughful, humane young conservative. And I’m wondering if he’s not so naive anymore himself, which is why you’re on opposite sides of this discourse.

Andrew Sullivan responds:

But the absence of any proposals for spending cuts, which one assumes is a Republican concern, renders this point moot. The minute a Republican actually proposes a set of policies that would return us to fiscal balance through spending cuts alone, I’ll listen. But none of them is honest enough to offer such a thing.

E.D. Kain responds:

Three things motivated much of my writing yesterday:

First, I am upset with the direction health reform has gone in the past few days.  I think the union deal was shameless and wrong-headed and a sell-out of ordinary working class people.  Further entrenchment of out-dated unions is bad for America and for the economy, and it does nothing to improve healthcare for most Americans whatsoever, let alone rein in systemic costs.  This has had me feeling not only dubious about my own support of the bill, but somewhat angry about the whole thing.  I’ve defended the various compromises made thus far, but this one seemed to go beyond the acceptable level of decency.

Second, a good Republican is hard to find, to paraphrase a favorite author of mine.  When somebody comes along that seems quite a lot more honest and less prone to all the silly tantrums and talk-radio ass-kissing than many of the high profile conservatives out there these days, I feel a little jubilant.  Scott Brown – whatever his flaws – still strikes me as this sort of candidate.  He’s no Jeff Flake, of course, but he’s still a far cry better than many of his colleagues on the right.

And third, Martha Coakley scares me.  The entitlement and arrogance she displays is mildly appalling.  It goes beyond amusement – I find her, as Jack said in the comments, a little more than creepy.  She’s awful, and she doesn’t deserve to win.  The Democrats certainly don’t deserve to win after picking such a terrible candidate.  Couple this with my feelings of resentment toward the way health reform has been going, and my reception of Scott Brown, and you begin to see why I found Andrew’s dismissal of him so unfair.  That being said, calling Sullivan “reflexively anti-Republican” was also unfair.  It was a reactionary sort of thing to say on my part – reflexive one might say.  I admire Andrew’s honesty even when we disagree, and dismissing anyone as “reflexively anti-……” does them a disservice.

Daniel Larison:

Here’s what Erik is missing and what Andrew found so irritating about the op-ed: Brown opens by listing his his concerns, including his concern over our $12 trillion in debt, and then urges tax-cutting without stating how this would even begin to address this massive debt. Fiscal conservatism isn’t a combination of the endless desire for tax reduction and lip service to mounting debt. Fiscal conservatives recognize large public debt to be a cause of economic weakness. Debt reduction is as much a part of any “pro-growth” policy as tax-cutting. Debt reduction has just as much to do with controlling the size of government as cutting taxes does. That Republicans predictably always prefer the latter is a source of increasing frustration for all of us on the right who would like to see both some glimmer of intelligence in Republican policy proposals and some readiness to address policy problems that exist today rather than addressing the problems that existed in 1981.

Absent significant increases in revenue to begin paying off that debt, tax reductions are a means to buy short-term support at the expense of our long-term fiscal and economic health. In Brown’s case, I suspect that one reason he included his “across-the-board tax cut” proposal in this particular op-ed is that he wanted to find some way to invoke John Kennedy and tie himself to the famous Massachusetts dynasty whose seat, of course, he will not be filling. Fiscal conservatives should find this much debt abhorrent because of the economic burden it places on the present and the obligations it imposes on our posterity, but other than saying “no more stimulus!” Brown tells us nothing about how he would work to reduce the debt. What bothers Andrew, and what I think moves him to dub Brown’s op-ed as “mindless,” is the readiness to exploit voter discontent over public debt without any willingness to propose how to pay it off, especially when it was his party at the national level that racked up a majority of that debt. Reflexive Republican opposition to new spending would not be so hard to take seriously if there were any sign that national Republicans were trying to eliminate the debt they and their predecessors left us. There are few signs of this, and Brown is not giving us any reason to think he takes this problem seriously.

Granted, this is a candidate’s op-ed the week before an election. No one expects him to lay out a detailed budget proposal. After all, even the House Republican leadership has difficulty doing that during budget negotiations! Brown is also running in Massachusetts, so I wouldn’t expect him to make radical calls for eliminating entitlement programs. Brown does at least save us the irritation of telling us how all of our budgets problems can be fixed by cutting out “wasteful spending” and earmarks, but he could offer one or two examples of a progam or department he thinks could be reduced or abolished. As it is, there is nothing.

E.D. Kain responds to Larison:

There are many things about Larison’s response to my post on Scott Brown that I agree with and a few things that I find quite puzzling.  Larison is correct that Brown’s op-ed lacked any substantive plan to reduce the federal debt or cut spending.  He was also right to note that this was an op-ed appearing one week prior to the election.  If I had to guess, I imagine a study which sampled all candidate op-ed’s published one week prior to elections would reveal that a very small percentage of them told people things they didn’t want to hear.

That is not exactly an excuse for Brown’s lack of substance or creativity, but it is hardly damning to point to an op-ed which promises tax cuts, opposes future spending, and doesn’t really do much else coming from a Republican.  He’s rallying what little base Republicans have in Massachusetts – and trying to define the gap between his policies and Martha Coakley’s.

Brown is, after all, anything but a die-hard conservative.  He’s a liberal Republican, as most Massachusetts Republicans are – and have to be in order to have any hope there electorally.  Larison claims that Brown wants it both ways on healthcare reform – backing RomneyCare while at the same time opposing the very similar bill in Congress.  I don’t know what his motivations are – whether it is pure Romney-esque cynicism or whether it is an expression of federalism, and I wish he’d go into further detail on the matter – but I imagine it is more an expression of federalism than pure politicking.  It is hardly inconsistent for a conservative to support local or state programs while opposing big federal programs after all.

Larison responds to Kain:
Let’s agree for the sake of discussion that Erik is correct that a strong mandate is imperative to cost containment. If that is so, how is it to Brown’s credit that he supported the Massachusetts legislation? If the federal bill has a weak mandate and if Erik is right that this will do a poor job of cost containment, the state legislation does not seem to have had a mandate that was any better. As I understand it, MassCare imposed an individual mandate and provided subsidies for those who could not afford insurance. According to reports I have read and by Brown’s own admission, there were no meaningful cost containment measures in the 2006 bill that he supported. Absent affordable coverage, achieving universal or near-universal coverage requires a subsidy, which Massachusetts has been providing, and it is this provision that has been eating up so much of the budget.

The bill has become a cause of serious fiscal problems in Massachusetts, the very same kind of fiscal problems Brown now claims as a reason for opposing the federal bill. Nonetheless, he continues to tout his support for the legislation, and he believes other states should “follow our example.” So they should follow the example of mandating expensive coverage and having taxpayers foot an ever-increasing bill? Naturally, Brown opposes the federal bill because he aspires to a federal Republican office and opposition to the administration’s agenda is a basic requirement of being accepted by the national party and conservative activists, so there was never any question of Brown bringing his experience with MassCare to change the federal bill. The point here is not that Brown shouldn’t oppose the Senate version of the bill. The point is that it strains credulity to listen to him reject the federal bill while urging other states to imitate a deeply flawed MassCare when it lacks the cost containment elements that make the federal bill similarly flawed and deserving of opposition.

Erik won’t like this comparison, but Brown’s attempt to have it both ways on this issue seems a lot like when Palin took credit for jacking up windfall profits taxes on oil corporations in one breath and then in the next played the part of champion of anti-tax activists and friend to Joe the Plumber. Back home, sticking it to oil corporations and spreading the wealth were all right by her, but on the national stage there was nothing more offensive to her than the redistribution of wealth. In Alaska, she was the populist sending out bigger checks to voters to buy support and popularity, and on the campaign trail she was the scourge of socialism. Arguably, this is a product of the national party’s ability to force rising politicians to conform and abandon whatever traits or ideas made them popular and electable at the local and state level, but Brown is no more immune to it than Palin was. Erik’s enthusiasm for Brown as a would-be refomist is likely to lead to disappointment.

Moving on, Conor Friedersdorf at The American Scene:

The New York Times:

Tea Party activists are trying to take over the establishment, ground up.Across the country, they are signing up to be Republican precinct leaders, a position so low-level that it often remains vacant, but which comes with the ability to vote for the party executives who endorse candidates, approve platforms and decide where the party spends money.A new group called the National Precinct Alliance says it has a coordinator in nearly every state to recruit Tea Party activists to fill the positions and has already swelled the number of like-minded members in Republican Party committees in Arizona and Nevada. Its mantra is this: take the precinct, take the state, take the party — and force it to nominate conservatives rather than people they see as liberals in Republican clothing.I am cautiously optimistic that this is going to be a good thing for the Republican Party in the long term. Should Tea Party activists rise in the party from the bottom up, they’ll begin from the mistaken premise that the GOP is in a mess because it elects closet liberals. As I’ve noted before, this is incorrect: though Tea Party attendees may imagine that the folks who sold them out during the Bush Administration were insufficiently conservative in their ideology, the fact of the matter is that folks like Karl Rove and Tom Delay were calling the shots and doing the most harm. I’ve heard those men called corrupt, but I’ve never heard them called RINOs.

Actually taking over the GOP by rising through the ranks, however, is inevitably going to open the eyes of these new politicos to what actually goes on inside the conservative movement, and hopefully over time they’ll seek candidates who are less like Sarah Palin and more like Gary Johnson. This presumes that the Tea Party folks are earnest in their small government beliefs, and that they won’t be corrupted by rising through the ranks. Some of them obviously will be corrupted, but while I don’t imagine they’ll be spectacularly better than what we’ve got now, I do think that the way they came to power might make them marginally less corrupted by the power they’ll eventually wield… if only they don’t fall prey to the catastrophic success that Ross Douthat and Ramesh Ponnurru are smartly worrying about.

James Poulos at The American Scene:

I don’t think the premise that the GOP is in trouble because it has too many RINOS is mistaken at all. (And let’s be clear: Republican liberals are out of the closet.) The trouble arises when conservatives conclude wishfully that the only problem the GOP faces is its liberals, and that, therefore, the GOP’s only, and final, solution is the elimination of its liberals. Occasionally, successful, established movement conservatives will talk this way. It’s easy for them, because they’re competing with successful, established liberal Republicans for control of the party apparatus. Following their lead, movement conservatives who aren’t quite as establishment, but whose constituencies have long been established pillars of the Republican grassroots, sometimes do the same.

But if there’s any group that’s least in danger of falling prey to the trap Conor identifies — aside from RINOs themselves, and would-be neutral referees of intraparty politics — it’s tea partiers. It’s precisely because putatively conservative Republicans have failed so spectacularly to deliver conservative governance that the tea partiers have moved to separate their identity and their organization from those of the GOP.

Yes, tea partiers have little praise for the Olympia Snowes of the world, but tea partiers recognize above all that the legacy of the Bush years would have been no better, and the GOP of today no better equipped to break free from it in the way necessary to defeat Obama, had the Olympia Snowes of the world been run out on their respective rails. If Republican liberals are irrelevant to the root problem, more Republican liberals would bring, at worst, greater irrelevance. They are not a poison but a distraction — one might almost say a red herring. From the tea party perspective, the idea that ‘more RINOs’ are the solution to a breakdown of conservatism in the congressional and party leadership is merely a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself.

The problem, as my fellow erstwhile Culture11er Ericka Andersen recently tweeted, is less that Americans stopped liking “what the GOP is supposed to deliver” than that “they stopped liking what the GOP actually delivered.” Supposedly, this tension reflects a war over “the heart and soul of the Republican party,” one centered on deep disagreements over exactly what the GOP is supposed to deliver. Indeed, small-c conservative Americans, regardless of party, have resisted the Republican slide into establishmentarian corporatism since, in our time, the rise and fall of Ross Perot.

The forceful way in which the tea partiers are putting this conservative resistance at the center of our political debate today should remind us of what went wrong for Republicans during the two Bush presidencies. The Bush presidents, different in so many ways, both turned the GOP toward corporatism in a way that significantly limited their success as candidates and presidents. (Reagan had neither problem. This is the root of Reagan nostalgia.) The lesson is a simple one: first and foremost, the Republican party is supposed to deliver not economic nor cultural but political goods.

The tea partiers, in insisting that economic policy derives from and reflects political principles, and not the other way around, help make this clear. Take taxes. When taxes are too many and too high, the economy suffers. But, as this decade has brutally taught us, taxes do not necessarily enrich the state, but they always aggrandize it. The evil of taxes is not primarily economic but political. When a government learns how to use taxes to coerce, control, and manage the behavior of its citizens, a country is placed on a perilous road — not to serfdom, necessarily, but to tyranny, a tyranny that lords over even the rich and famous, even when they happen to profit from its favor. The GOP is supposed to keep this kind of tyranny at bay, and when it comes near, the GOP is supposed to ward it off.

E.D. Kain at The League:

Three things are mistaken here.

First, that “taxes do not necessarily enrich the state, but they always aggrandize it” strikes me as a very odd thing to assert n the context of the past decade.  While taxes may indeed aggrandize the state, how James can reach this conclusion after a period in which tax rates have been at historical lows is beyond me.  If anything, the past decade has revealed the state’s capacity to endlessly borrow in order to pay for the spending that Republicans and Democrats alike cannot seem to cut back.

And while taxes can indeed be corrosive to liberty and used to coerce citizens and distort the natural economy and a whole host of other abuses, they can also be used for legitimate purposes – though no two people can agree on what those purposes may be.  I assume James approves of our tax dollars going to our national defense, for instance, but perhaps not toward national healthcare.  Calling this tyranny without explaining why it is tyranny is mostly unsatisfying, especially coming from someone who can certainly think past such trite assertions.

The notion that RINO’s are blind to said tyranny or do not perceive it as a problem is on similarly weak footing.  Since tyranny here has only been vaguely defined to begin with, it is difficult to understand exactly how these Republicans In Name Only – of which I would surely be one if I were registered to vote Republican – can be accused of such blindness or apathy.  Until this supposed tyranny can be tangibly defined, I have a hard time taking this seriously at all. Unless we are to fall back on old anti-Soviet tropes, of course.  One man’s tyranny is another man’s bulwark against social decline, and vice versa.

And last I checked the “growing number of American commentators suffering China envy” numbers at one Tom Friedman.

James loses me entirely here, however:

Moreover, liberals of any party seeking primarily to foster or facilitate cultural change typically have little desire to focus their attention, much less their careers, on preventing the government from aggrandizing itself. A government that routinely manages economic behavior through its economic policy is well able to routinely manage social and personal behavior that way. In theory, there’s no reason why lots of Republicans can’t be ‘socially liberal but fiscally conservative.’ In practice, social liberals, of any party, have a vested interest in a government that rules not only by law but by economics.

This is a preposterous thing to say.  Perhaps I’m biased since I’m “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” myself (I know, the first step toward RINOism!) but I think that statements such as this only function if politics is truly a linear field, if “socially liberal” or “socially conservative” can only be defined in the narrowest of terms.  (My own socially liberal positions I have framed in conservative terms, but that is neither here nor there.)  After all, social conservatism used to include a belief that black people were inferior to whites.  Unless, of course, you were one of those radical religious abolitionists. Or, in other words, such distinctions are useless except as darts to be thrown at the other team, or walls to be erected around your own.  Which is what James is doing with this post, of course – picking sides, distancing himself from the RINO’s and the liberal conservatives, heaping praise on the tea parties and so forth.

Chris Dierkes at The League:

Given that James is writing about the Tea Partiers, I think it’s fair to now officially start calling him (lovingly) The Mad Hatter.  I don’t know if that makes Erik The March Hare  (and me Alice?), but here we go.


Both Erik and Freddie (The Cheshire Cat?)  rightly point out in the comments to James’ post the slight oddity (madness?) of bandying about the “Ts” of tyranny and taxation given the (comparatively) low rates of taxation in the United States.

Nevertheless, I think The March Hare has missed The Hatter’s point here.

I wouldn’t speak to James’ intention or meaning on this one, but I understand his point (and recall I’m apparently in Wonderland now) to be that the theoretical praxis of modern scientific economics has historically been associated with the managerial control of humans, who are typically treated as large-scale homogeneous entities. It was born of a political desire, in the absolutist regimes of Europe, to gain control.

Moreover, our economic lives are not so separate from our personal moral/social lives.  I’m not advocating Marxism 101 whereby our consciousness is utterly determined by class-economics, but James (as I read him) is pointing to a philosophical point that so neat a divide between the economic and personal-moral does not exist.  Hence his point about fiscal cons and libertarians being liberals (in the classical sense).

I always thought that a more organic (read: anti-Lockean) notion that the various dimensions of our lives cannot be so easily sliced, diced, and segregated from one another was a conservative notion.  But nowadays I don’t know what conservative means anymore, so I might just be spending too much time smoking the political philosophical hookah with the Caterpillar (aka Br. Payne) on that one.

I’m more with Freddie and Erik in thinking that the tea partiers are not the vehicle Poulos really wants them to be and that taxation is a particularly poor example of his larger point.  I’d like a word slightly less forceful than tyranny, floating around the idea James is getting at without having to be so direct and overly concrete about it.  In other words, even with my criticisms,  I think there is a point worth considering in James’ post.  The mainstream form of economics is being infected with a de-humanizing virus.  It may be, depending on its deployment in different places and times, a fairly mild virus, but it may spike, causing a political fever for a period and then abate.  But over the longer haul, I wonder if it is slowly causing some degradation of the politico-philosophical immune system of the body politic.

OK, let us return to Scott Brown and  Andrew Sullivan:

I can see no alternative scenario but a huge – staggeringly huge – victory for the FNC/RNC machine tomorrow. They crafted a strategy of total oppositionism to anything Obama proposed a year ago. Remember they gave him zero votes on even the stimulus in his first weeks. They saw health insurance reform as Obama’s Waterloo, and, thanks in part to the dithering Democrats, they beat him on that hill. They have successfully channeled all the rage at the massive debt and recession the president inherited on Obama after just one year. If they can do that already, against the massive evidence against them, they have the power to wield populism to destroy any attempt by government to address any actual problems.

This is a nihilist moment, built from a nihilist strategy in order to regain power … to do nothing but wage war against enemies at home and abroad.

James Joyner:

This is, to say the least, a wee overreaction to a single, sui generis contest.

The out party is frequently able to focus negative energy in a single, off-cycle race.  And, frankly, the Democrats did themselves no favors in choosing Martha Coakley, who has simply been an awful candidate.  They arrogantly believed that literally anyone carrying the “Democrat” label would be able to hold the seat. They may yet be proven right but it doesn’t look good for them.

As to the rest, the “stimulus” was a huge boondoggle — and one that followed on the heels of two previous “stimulus” packages under President Bush.  Flooding the economy with so much money no doubt helped, but no one thought it was the most effective way of using the money.  And the rump Republican Party in Congress, deservedly decimated in successive elections after failing to live up to their principles, had a renewed belief in fiscal sanity.

Similarly, most of them honestly believed health reform of the type Obama and the Democratic leadership wanted was bad public policy.  Indeed, it’s one of the few issues where there’s still legitimate ideological difference between the two parties.

Certainly, there was also a political calculation by the GOP leadership that providing zero votes on these bills was a way of signaling the depth of the party’s opposition and making the Democrats  “own” the stimulus and the health bills.  But so what?  Politics ain’t beanbag.

As to successfully blaming Obama for the current depths of the recession and the deficit, boo frickin’ hoo.   We always blame the sitting president for the state of the economy.  If you don’t want that, don’t run for the job.

And, frankly, Obama does in fact own much of what has transpired.  People understand that he “inherited” the recession but the fact of the matter is that the unemployment rate is much higher than it was expected to be, even in the projections of Obama’s own team.  Rather than funneling money to people who’ve lost their jobs, he instead bailed out their employers in the mostly vain hope of saving dying industries.   Why shouldn’t he be blamed for that?

Ditto the deficit.  Yes, he inherited a huge one and it was going to get worse in this economy. But the fact of the matter is that he pushed for massive bailouts and stimulus packages, putting the country much further into debt.  We can argue about whether that was a good thing to do under the circumstances — or even whether a President McCain might have done pretty much the same thing — but, again, he was the man at the helm.

There’s a modest populist surge out there, as evidenced by the Tea Party and various other phenomena.  But, as always, most Americans are only peripherally interested in politics.   Right now, Obama is rather unpopular.   Not wildly unpopular, as his predecessor was, but nonetheless one with higher disapproval than approval numbers.   That’s hardly unprecedented for new presidents trying to enact major social changes in a down economy.    See Reagan, Ronald and Clinton, Bill.

Mark Thompson at The League:

The only thing I’d add is that bemoaning the possible death of this health care reform bill as “nihilist” is deeply unfair to the many people who really, honestly do believe that the bills that have been passed in the House and, especially, the Senate actively make matters worse in this country for any number of reasons.  It is increasingly frustrating to me that, for many supporters of Obama, any belief that the existing health care reform bills will do more harm than good is automatically written off as being in bad faith or, as it were, “nihilistic.”

On yet another topic, Ross Douthat:

Whether this Northeastern G.O.P. surge can be sustained will depend on a host of factors — but Kornacki’s right, I think, to imply that it will depend on whether the Republican Party can find leaders, for 2012 and beyond, who don’t make the party seem too Southern. On this front, though, I think that style and symbolism probably matter more than substance. Yes, Kornacki’s “moderate/social libertarian-types” are probably more likely to win elections in the Northeast (though Christie and Toomey are pro-life, and Brown opposes partial-birth abortion and gay marriage). But that doesn’t mean that the national G.O.P. needs to run a Rudy Giuliani-William Weld ticket in 2012 to keep the party competitive in Yankee country. What turns off Northeasterners, as Caldwell suggested a decade ago, is less a specific issue like abortion than “the broader cultural claims of those who put it forward” — the sense, that is, that a vote for the G.O.P. is a vote for the habits and mores of Alabama or Mississippi (or a caricature thereof), complete with guns in the cupboard and creationism in the schools.

The G.O.P.’s Dixie problem, in other words, is similar to the Democratic Party’s New England problem. Americans voted against Michael Dukakis and John Kerry because they were liberals, yes, but more importantly because they were Massachusetts liberals, which made them seem like cultural as well as political outliers to much of the national electorate. Likewise, the political history of the Bush administration would have been different, and probably less divisive, if Bush had been a conservative Catholic from Wisconsin rather than a conservative evangelical from Texas.

This is not intended as a knock on Texas evangelicals — or Massachusetts liberals, for that matter. America’s political and cultural diversity is a wonderful thing. But if you’re trying to be a national political party, you want your leadership to fall relatively close to the American mean culturally, even (or especially) if you’re going to govern from the right or left politically. That means that Democrats are better off with leaders from the Midwest or the Great Plains or the Border South than with leaders from New England or Northern California. (Barack Obama’s Midwestern-ness, I think, was an underrated part of his political appeal in 2008.) And it means that if I were a Republican politician from New England, New Jersey or New York, I’d be hoping that the G.O.P. nominates a Mitch Daniels or a Tim Pawlenty in 2012 — so that Yankee voters can pull the “Republican” lever without worrying that they’re casting a vote for the Old Confederacy along the way.

Starting to bring some of this together with Daniel Larison:

The interesting thing is that the activist support for Scott Brown seems to be somewhat different from the inexplicably nationalized nature of Hoffman’s campaign and the overwhelmingly national sources of his support. Instead of fitting the cookie-cutter model of the nationally-acceptable, talk radio-approved conservative, Scott Brown seems more suited to and interested in the state he wants to represent. Despite being pretty much a classic moderate Massachusetts Republican in the Weld-Romney mold, he seems to be winning Tea Party and movement activist support, and he seems to be winning it because he has a better-than-expected chance of winning in traditionally very difficult territory. Interestingly, he has distanced himself from the GOP much as Romney did when he first ran for Senate, but in the present environment Brown’s self-declared independence is both politically smart in Massachusetts and it has not been a cause of conservative activist dismay.

So Tea Party activists in the Northeast are backing a viable candidate in Massachusetts to seize the opportunity of competing for an open Senate seat. This should make clear that the nature of the Tea Party agenda is going to depend on the region where the activists are operating, and it should also emphasize how relatively unimportant social conservative issues are to the Tea Party agenda, whose focus is heavily fiscal and economic. The willingness to acknowledge regional political differences is an encouraging sign that these activists could combine their anti-establishment populists instincts with attention to local political conditions and grievances. That shows the flexibility needed to rebuild a national political coalition.

It also suggests that the specter of vote-splitting between Republican candidates and Tea Party activist-backed candidates is mostly the product of wishful thinking on the part of national Democratic committeemen. Tea Partiers may be quite ready to support reasonably tolerable Republican candidates, so long as those candidates have not crossed certain red lines of offering support to the administration’s agenda. Even though Crist is closer to movement conservatives in some ways on paper than Brown, Crist crossed the red line of actively endorsing the stimulus legislation. It seems that this, more than anything else, has been killing Crist during the primary.

Granted, the vote next week is a special election in a midterm year, so we should expect the insurgent Republican candidate to have a much better chance than he would normally have in a general election there, but even though Brown will probably still lose narrowly he will have done so in a statewide race in a traditionally Democratic state. This makes him extremely different from Hoffman, who failed to win in an historically Republican district that was also one of the most right-leaning House districts in the region.

And bringing it all back home, Reihan Salam:

I am far from convinced that Brown will win tomorrow. But I want to suggest that he represents not nihilism, as Andrew suggests, but rather a belief in competitive federalism. I believe, and I get the strong impression that Brown believes, that health reform is an issue that should be handled differently in different regions of the country. The Massachusetts reform model might prove to be a decent fit for Massachusetts — the jury is still out, and it’s a commonplace that the model is in desperate need to delivery-system reform. But perhaps Hawaii will want to experiment with a single-payer system and Texas will want to experiment with universal catastrophic coverage and Minnesota will choose something in between.

I understand the frustration that Andrew feels with conservative elites, who can be at least as hypocritical and incompetent as liberal elites, and there’s a decent case that the Bush administration took steps that centralized power in Washington, D.C. to a truly dangerous degree. But as someone who has an enduring distrust of centralized bureaucracies, one-size-fits-all solutions, and the technocratic ideal, I think that Andrew should be more skeptical of the Democratic health reform effort. Moreover, these principles should go beyond left and right. Excessively centralized power, whether in the hands of the federal government or large private sector firms that actively shape the regulatory structure, should concern all of us.

And I sense that at least some of the impetus behind Brown’s (still unproven) popularity comes from the view that we’ve gone too far in a centralized direction.

There are many, many ironies in the Brownthusiam, but the most notable is the fact that this suburban father with a rather blandly centrist voting record has become the target of apocalyptic rhetoric from both sides. Really, the question is whether or not he has decent judgment. His record suggests that he’s good at making fine distinctions and voting in a pragmatic, constituency-focused manner. I’d prefer a more cost-conscious legislator myself, but he certainly doesn’t come across as a nihilist bent on the destruction of government.


Andrew thinks that the Tea Party movement has been unfair to the president, and he has a point.

They have successfully channeled all the rage at the massive debt and recession the president inherited on Obama after just one year.

Where were the Tea Partiers during the Bush years? One assumes that many of them were conservative independents who abandoned President Bush in droves, and who helped put Jim Webb and Jon Tester and other populist Democrats over the top in 2006. But as for the Republican refusal to vote for the stimulus, I think the case against the actual federal stimulus package — as opposed to the theoretical virtues of a well-designed, sustainable stimulus package — was fairly strong, and it was made by left-of-center scholars like Jeffrey Sachs as well as many on the right, including scholars who favored some kind of fairly large stimulus like Greg Mankiw.

I understand that Andrew, like many friends I admire and respect, has a great deal of faith in the Obama administration, and he seems to believe that the Democratic health reform model represents the only good-faith compromise imaginable given the nihilistic role played by the Republicans. I very strongly disagree. Rather, I think that it is a misguided effort that will exceedingly difficult to undo. And a good number of voters across the country, not just in Massachusetts or for that matter the Deep South, are similarly convinced. We could be wrong. But I don’t think we’re insane.

UPDATE: Poulos responds to the League

UPDATE: More Larison


1 Comment

Filed under Conservative Movement, Political Figures, Politics

One response to ““We’re All Mad Here:” Tea Parties, Scott Brown, The GOP, And Some Tom Petty

  1. Good grief, you’ve really gone above and beyond the call of duty on this one…

    Nicely done.

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