A thoughtful E.J. Dionne editorial this weekend lauds Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Obviously, that’s nothing new – outside of Klansmen and contrarians, there aren’t a lot of people writing anti-MLK op eds. What’s striking about Dionne’s piece is that it points out King’s radicalism:
This focus on calling out injustice — pointedly, heatedly, sometimes angrily — is what the people of King’s time, friend and foe alike, heard. It made many moderates (and so-called moderates) decidedly uncomfortable.
Anyone tempted to sanitize King into a go-along sort of guy should read his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” from April 1963. It’s a sharp rebuke to a group of white ministers who criticized him as an outsider causing trouble and wanted him to back off his militancy… And recall King’s response to being accused of extremism. Though “initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist,” he wrote, “as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label.” Jesus, he said, was called “an extremist for love,” and Amos “an extremist for justice.” The issue was: “Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”
For a shorter version of that last quote, thumb over to Barry Goldwater‘s page in Bartlett’s: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
In fact, Dionne’s characterization of King invites comparison to the coverage of the movement for smaller government. (To his credit, Dionne has shown he recognizes this parallel to a degree; he’s one of the few left-leaning columnists able to discern the tea party from Republican politics.)
It deserves mentioning that there are plenty of differences: Tea party rallies aren’t being broken up with fire hoses, rubber (or real) bullets, tear gas, or the releasing of any hounds. King and his allies risked life and limb to make a stand for their big idea.
But they did have that big idea, and believed in it so much that compromise was unacceptable. People were either equal, or they weren’t; they were either allowed to attend the same schools and drink from the same water fountains, or they weren’t.
With that in mind, let’s look at our policy landscape here in 2011. There’s a snowballing debt thanks to a governing culture that allows government to spend lavishly to help build a society and direct an economy. The debt puts at risk the stability of our currency and by extension things like houses and other long-term investments. More important, the services financed by that debt are generally sub-par and fail to accomplish intended goals.
Either that governing culture changes – reigning in spending, allowing people to make their own decisions about health care and retirement, and eliminating waste – or it doesn’t.
The casualties of this movement include moderate and Washington-centric politicians – such as Mike Castle and Bob Bennett in 2010. It makes “moderates and so-called moderates” (to borrow Dionne’s term) like Sen. Orrin Hatch uncomfortable.
But if you believe strongly that the government was biting off more than it could chew to deliver failing policies, and that the promises of Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, and other public assistance programs are a bad check which will be sent back marked “insufficient funds,” you should be fighting. And supposed allies who favor a “wait-and-see” approach while continuing to conduct the business of government the same way it has been conducted for 80 years aren’t really allies.
That isn’t “extremism,” it’s political advocacy – and as observers from King to Dionne have understood, it’s how policy making works.
It’s shaping up to be a big week for Minnesotans running for President, with Michelle Bachmann yesterday suggesting that there might be a future announcement about preparing to make an announcement that she would consider heavily running for President. (That’s an official FEC designation, as I understand it.)
For 2012, it’s tough to see where Bachmann will draw support. She has made plenty of inroads with tea partiers, but her operation may be short on organizational infrastructure – a polite way of saying that the usual top-level consultants who know how a Presidential race is run may not want to touch her with a 40 foot pole. (And what candidate would you touch with a 40 foot pole? But that’s a question for another blog.) Perhaps sensing vulnerability and indecision from Palin – or with inside knowledge that she won’t run – Bachmann sees the potential for a candidate straight out of central casting for the strong, suburban soccer mom demographic like herself to fill the gap.
Or maybe Bachmann is, despite all the criticism, pretty smart about the nature of political movements. Some pundits might advise she bide her time, run for Governor or Senate, and table her White House ambitions until 2016, 2020, or even 2024. But while the tea party movement where her support is based is very relevant now, the reality is that its influence may have already crested with the 2010 election. If it could carry her through Iowa and possibly South Carolina early on, she could at least score a pretty good speaking slot at the Republican Convention. It would be a long shot, but it also might be her best shot.
A moderate Democrat Senator, who had been backed into some tough votes, was made vulnerable by his public allegiance to President Obama. The only possible path to victory would be a tea party Republican candidate lacking in media savvy and unable to connect with voters. Unfortunately for Jim Webb, he isn’t Harry Reid. Despite a wide-open Republican field stuck between lesser-known candidates and former YouTube sensations, Webb is not running for re-election in 2012.
Many political observers thought a groundswell of conservative activism would upend incumbents in 2012 – speculation included Orrin Hatch, Dick Lugar, and even the normally safe Olympia Snowe falling in primaries. Webb’s surprise exit beats them all.
Even without an opponent at this point, Webb had to see the writing on the wall that his re-election would be tough. The redemption-seeking retread candidacy of George Allen is ripe for a tea party upset, and other candidates are lining up as well. But with excited conservative activists and the absence of national Democrat momentum, Webb was destined to join Creigh Deeds in the second place circle in November 2012, even against a fringe tea partier.
Put another way, Sharron Angle, who narrowly lost to Reid, probably would have beaten Webb in Virginia. John Buck in Colorado likely would have beaten Webb in Virginia. Webb doesn’t have the long record of public service that Reid boasts, nor the leadership, nor the ability to raise nearly $25 million to holdhis seat. Democratic campaign committees and independent groups were unlikely to chip in – races in Missouri, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and New Mexico, plus pickup opportunities in Nevada and Massachusetts, will all rank ahead of Virginia for national Democrats.
Aside from the realities of the electoral map, investing in a Virginia race with Jim Webb as your candidate has a strategic messaging issue. After all, Democrats were able to beat back some challengers in 2010 by convincing independents that specific Republicans – such as Angle – were a bit loony. Michael Bennet, Chris Coons, Reid, and others were able to paint themselves as sane alternatives to “crazy tea partiers.”
There is simply no conceivable way the tea party could out-crazy Jim Webb.
This week, Tommy Christopher at Mediaite shared this parody of FreedomWorks’ Matt Kibbe and the tea party movement:
If the character playing Kibbe sounds a little familiar, it’s because he’s the former voiceover artist who left a threatening voicemail with FreedomWorks resulting in him getting axed from GEICO. (Happiest guy about this? That “Could switching to GEICO really save you 15% or more” guy who looks like an extra from Mad Men.)
The joke is a bit of inside baseball – if you follow politics closely you recognize the takeoff of Kibbe’s signature ‘burns. But it’s so clearly directed at FreedomWorks, that its limited appeal really doesn’t matter – this is nothing but an FU to FW.
It isn’t deserved, but at least it’s funny.
What might be the best wrap-up of yesterday’s primary results was published before the returns came in. As media outlets keep dropping over-simplistic terms like “tea party support” and “outsiders vs. insiders” to explain what happened, the Washington Examiner’s Timothy Carney boils the divide in Republican politics down as “the Tea Party Wing against the K Street Wing” – a divide which is not simply ideological or experiential:
The main distinction… might have less to do with policy platforms and more to do with a politician’s attitude toward the Washington nexus of power and money. Nevada’s Sharron Angle is anti-bailout and anti-subsidy. [Kentucky candidate Rand] Paul could try to shrink defense spending and ethanol subsidies. In Florida, Republican Marco Rubio isn’t a game player like [former Senator Bob] Dole’s buddy Crist is.
This morning, we hear that Lisa Murkowski is in trouble against “tea partier” Joe Miller, that John McCain bested an insurgent challenge from a more conservative candidate, and that established Republican Bill McCollum lost out to Rick Scott.
So if you’re scoring at home, “the establishment” won some and lost some, with Alaska up in the air – at least, according to most of the talking heads you see.
But can you call McCain an establishment Republican candidate? McCain had bucked national party leadership in his own way for decades, often lashing out at the K Street types Carney mentions above. As Matt Lewis noted – again, before polls closed yesterday – he fought a serious race against an opponent with more clear ties to K Street establishmentism. Last week, the New York Times saw fit to print that Alaska’s rugged individualism was either inconsistent or an outright sham because of its dependence on federal money; regardless of how the final tallies go for the scion of the Murkowski family goes, her ability to keep winning earmarks did not lead to an easy victory lap. And Bill McCollum was part of a Republican establishment in Florida rocked with a spending scandal earlier this year.
And of course, there’s the big caveat that each race has its own local interpretations of who counts as “the establishment” and who really is an “outsider.” All the more reason to look at the results through Carney’s prism rather than the crystal ball which other analysts are trying to use.
Arizona’s new immigration has, predictably, led to protests. John Hawkins of Right Wing News chronicles some of the disturbing signs that the pro-illegal immigration protesters have been waving about. Here’s my favorite:
These signs in and of themselves aren’t really relevant, but as Hawkins points out, outlets like the Huffington Post love to bring their cameras to tea party rallies to capture the “shocking” rhetoric they see there. It’s an astute parallel to draw: If you want to judge the tea partiers by their most extreme elements, don’t you have to judge the pro-illegal immigration movement the same way?
Doing either misses the bigger images that each movement brings to the table. For instance, in many of the pictures Hawkins displays, extreme signs calling for the overthrow of America obscure protesters with American flags in the background. The undercurrent of the immigration debate is a quest for the American dream, not the racist rhetoric on the signs – a revelation which puts the debate in a new perspective, even if you don’t agree with what they’re saying.
That might be a good lesson to kind in mind for those covering the tea parties, too.