The Primary Election and the Tea Party – May 24, 2010

Well.  The primaries sure were interesting.  My takeaway is that there is little comfort here for any of the following: President Obama, incumbent legislators, or establishment parties.

None of the winners in Tuesday’s matchups ran in support of Obama’s agenda.  The most noteworthy was the election of Mark Critz in Pennsylvania’s 12th, and he ran as a 2nd Amendment, anti-abortion, anti-Obamacare blue dog Democrat.  Republicans thought they might win that seat, and the message for them is that you have to do more than say you’re not the Democrats to get people fired up.  And fired up is what will be needed come November.
Neither of the two candidates supported by the White House fared well either: Arlen Specter got trounced, even after the White House tried to buy off Joe Sestak with a job offer in the administration.  No real surprise there – Pennsylvanian Democrats have been voting against Specter for decades; they should start voting for him now?  The real interesting thing here is how cynically the White House dumped him when it looked like he was a goner.  The president was all buddy buddy with Specter when he needed his vote on the stimulus bill and health care, even making promises of electoral support.  That disappeared like so much flash paper.
Then there was Blanche Lincoln.  Another health care supporter.  That didn’t do her enough good to escape a run-off.  Now, both Lincoln and Specter were contested from the left – this set of primaries was not all Tea Partiers and rejection.  There were those who said Obama didn’t go far enough.  That’s going to make it very interesting in the fall.  Unions were especially significant in this, mostly public sector unions.  Given how lavish their pay and benefits have become over the years, they have among the strongest of motivations to do battle with the forces of fiscal responsibility.
Which brings us to Kentucky.  Rand Paul, political unknown with a well known father, beat the snot out of the hand-picked candidate of the Republican establishment, actively supported by Mitch McConnell, the most famous and most popular Republican in the state.  But Paul had the Tea Party, and in Kentucky that was enough to blow the race wide open.
But Paul is a political novice, and given the narrative that much of the media has established for itself regarding the Tea Party, it was a matter of hours before he was being hoisted up on indirect charges of racism.  Did he support the Civil Rights Act of 1964?  Well, he said, nine of its ten titles had to do with institutional racism and discrimination by governmental and official bodies, and that is all fine and right – I abhor discrimination and racism, he said.  (not good enough, though, for the media:) but the tenth article has to do with private businesses, and Paul said he has a problem with the government telling private citizens how to run their businesses.  So a philosophical disagreement on one of ten titles to a law that he otherwise wholeheartedly supported morphed through the magic of sound bite management into the notion that he would work to repeal the Civil Rights Act if he could.  Total nonsense, of course, but it’s proof that Paul was not prepared for the buzzsaw of the national media that he let his message get thrown so badly off track.  Sarah Palin said, “now he knows what it’s like to be me.”
So I thought I would do a little research into this notion of the racism of the Tea Party activists.  It is one of those nuggets of conventional wisdom, or urban legend, that has so taken grip that it is impervious to the facts – sort of like “Bush lied us into war with Iraq” when there is not a shred of evidence that he knew Saddam had no WMD.  Was there substance to the racism thing?
First of all, it’s a squirmy thing to pin down.  For one thing, the Tea Party is not an organized party with an official platform that one can parse for hidden meanings.  For another, since it is a collection of individuals, you will always be able to find some fringe kook to use as an illustration of the group.  Thirdly, what does one take as evidence of racism?  As we’ll see, that standard is very flexible for some people.  So with all that in mind, I set out on the Web.
The first thing I looked for was the famous “spitting” incident, where a protester at the March rally against Obamacare supposedly spat on Rep Emanuel Cleaver.  Here is the You Tube:
Now, it’s impossible to say, but the perp has his hands cupped around his mouth and is clearly shouting at all the Representatives that walk by.  There is nothing different about his attitude when Cleaver comes in range, nor does he rear back or collect saliva as if he was seriously planning to spit on someone.  Then Cleaver reacts – clearly he felt something.  To me, it looks like a case of “say it, don’t spray it.”  Maybe it’s a toss-up.  But does it support the charge of racism?  Everybody is shouting “kill the bill.”  Sounds pretty ecumenical to me.
The other charge from that protest was, of course, that somebody hurled the N-word at Rep John Lewis, not once but fifteen times, as it was alleged in the well of Congress.  But you won’t find that on You Tube.  In fact, conservative gadfly Andrew Breitbart (he who helped those kids expose Acorn not once but many times over in the flagrant act of abetting child pornography) has offered a reward of $10,000 to the United Negro College Fund for any evidence that that word was used once, let alone fifteen times.  With all the cell phone video cams out in force that day, one would think there would be some snippet captured in pixels.  Breitbart still has his money, however.  (This by the way, reminds me of the $1 million dollar reward T Boone Pickens offered for proof that any of the charges made in ads by the Swift Boaters about John Kerry were untrue; despite the fact that “to Swift Boat” has entered the lexicon as a verb meaning to charge falsely, Pickens still has his money.)
So if this was a band of howling racists, they sure kept their nomenclature under wraps.
I heard a caller to a radio show spout convincingly that “they’re all racists,” and as proof, he almost literally said the following: “instead of using the N-word, they call Obama things like “usurper,” “socialist,” and “communist.”  Instead of the Confederate flag, they put a little snake on it.  Instead of dressing up in sheets like the Ku Klux Klan, they dress up like Ben Franklin.”  And all this, to the caller, was evidence of racism.
Hard to argue with that.
I heard another voice, this one a respected liberal talking head (although for the life of me I can’t remember who it was), who said, “look at their rallies.  There isn’t a person of color to be seen.  And if you do come across a minority, they make a big deal about ‘our minorities’ when there’s only one there.” or words to that effect.  But if that is the measure, then look at my church – I live in a community that is in great preponderance Caucasian.  We generally only see black faces in our congregation when we invite Vernon Clark and the Heirs of Joy to raise the roof on Gospel Sunday.  Which the whole house loves, by the way.  Does that make us racist?  Is a sea of white faces evidence of anything but the choice people make about with whom to associate?
Let me offer another thought.  If, as I maintain, the whole Tea Party thing is an outgrowth of popular outrage at government spending and expansion of government control,  wouldn’t it make sense that people protesting that would tend to come from that 50% of the population that pays all the income tax?  Generally speaking, the other 50% – the recipient half – is likely to be OK with more government spending.  And – just talking about the nation’s actual demographics here – in which 50% is the average African American more likely to reside?  Is the lack of black faces at Tea Party protests necessarily evidence of anything more than interest group politics?
I did more You Tube research, and I found one that claimed to have “What the Media Won’t Show You.”  Here it is, I said to myself.
To save you the trouble, it shows a series of signs carried by participants at Tea Party rallies.  They say things like:
“Obama’s Plan: White Slavery”
“The American Taxpayers are the Jews for Obama’s Ovens”
“The New Face of Hitler”
“Obama was not Bowing [to the Saudi King], He was Sucking Saudi Jewels”
“Speak for Yourself, Obama, We Are a Christian Nation”
“Hey Big Brother, Show Us Your Real Birth Certificate”
[Obama waving to a bunch of terrorists] “Whoa, Boys, I’ll Take It From Here”
A Confederate Flag
“Congress = Slaveowner, Taxpayer = Nigger”
“Sieg Heil, Herr Obama”
“Wake Up America! Your Muslim President Bowed to his Muslim King”
“We Need A Christian President”
“Obama is the Antichrist! Oust Obama”
and so on.
Now these are edgy, and many of them are ill-informed.  It is true that there is a wacko fringe, the “birthers,” who insist that Obama is not a natural born citizen, and others that don’t trust his claims to being a Christian (let’s see, middle name Hussein, twenty years in a church with a venom-spitting liberation theology preacher, no regular church or church service attendance while president unlike every other one –  no justification at all for those beliefs).  But seriously – Obama as Hitler?  If this is evidence of racism, what was it when the exact same charge was leveled at George W Bush?
There is one sign that uses the N-word, but the protester uses it to refer to himself.  Is that racist?  By what flexible definition does that reflect “hatred” that a black person is President?
It is easy to imagine every one of those signs, or something very like them, being waved at any President who angers and polarizes people.  If there is a theme specific to Obama’s person, it is not his race so much as the hints  that he might be a stalking horse for our enemies in the Islamic world.  Nuts, sure – but racist?  If he were a white Muslim President and people waved the same signs, what would it be?
There was one sign, saved for last, that truly was racist – it showed a Klansman holding up a tea bag that was actually a noose from which dangled Obama, and the bag was labeled 2012.  Offensive.  But rather lonely in context – like the makers of the video had one nugget of evidence and felt like they had to give it substance by padding it with all this other stuff that didn’t count.  I remember doing something similar on college essays when my one good idea would not fill a blue book.  I’m sure the profs saw right through that.
It was not too long ago that people were saying the most vile things about President Bush, even producing plays that fantasized about his assassination.  At the time, nobody in the popular media came to his defense (at least, not outside Fox News or the Wall Street Journal) – on the contrary, the general notion was that he had it coming because he was just so, well, bad. But when the same kind of vitriol is thrown at Obama, the rush is to discredit the critics and to use the most damning and simultaneously least-proven charge: racist.
Look, the Tea Party sprang into being after on-air financial commentator Rick Santelli went on a rant from his CNBC reporting spot in Chicago’s futures pits about bank, car company, and mortgage bailouts.  It was then and has been ever since about opposing Barack Obama’s bold plan to restructure the economy to fit his vision of a fairer, more heavily taxed and more heavily regulated society.  If it was a function of his race instead of his policies, why weren’t they out in force on Inauguration Day?
Back in Bush’s day, people on the left said that protest is the highest form of patriotism.  It didn’t seem to matter how extreme the rhetoric or how hate-filled the shouting.  There was no such thing as over the top.  It was all in the patriotic service of righting a country gone tragically wrong.
And now?
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