Wednesday, September 15, 2010

They May Think It's A Movement

"And the only reason I'm singing you this song now is 'cause you may know somebody in a similar situation, or you may be in a similar situation, and if you're in a situation like that there's only one thing you can do, and that's walk into the shrink wherever you are, just walk in, say 'Shrink, you can get anything you want at Alice's restaurant' and walk out. You know, if one person, just one person does it, they may think he's really sick, and they won't take him. And if two people, two people do it, in harmony, they may think they're both faggots, and they won't take either of them. And if three people do it, three, can you imagine, three people walking in, singin' a bar of Alice's Restaurant and walking out? They may think it's an organization. And can you imagine 50 people a day, I said 50 people a day walking in, singin' a bar of Alice's Restaurant and walking out? Then, friends, they may think it's a movement.

"And that's what it is, the Alice's Restaurant Anti–Massacree Movement, and all you got to do to join is sing it the next time it comes around on the guitar."

Arlo Guthrie

Five years ago, in the summer and fall of 2005, liberals and Democrats (and, despite all opinions to the contrary, the two terms are not interchangeable) didn't object to the notion of a movement.

At least, they didn't object when it meant an antiwar activist like Cindy Sheehan was camping out outside George W. Bush's ranch in Texas and attracting the support of more and more mainstream Americans who were frustrated by the sausage grinder war policies of the Bush administration.

(Mind you, there were those who opposed the invasion of Iraq from the beginning. And opposition had been growing ever since George W. Bush's famous "Mission: Accomplished" speech on board the ship at sea. But Sheehan, who came to oppose the war after her son's ultimate sacrifice, made it fashionable to speak out against it.)

Nor did the liberals and/or Democrats have any objections to associating the word "movement" with Barack Obama's presidential campaign in 2008. Perhaps that was a subconscious thing. "Movement" conjures up memories of the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King — and Obama, the first black nominee of a major party, accepted the presidential nomination on the 45th anniversary of King's legendary "I Have a Dream" speech.

Maybe it was all too neat and orderly. Maybe it seemed preordained. Or maybe it just raised the bar of expectations to impossible heights.

I wonder if, perhaps, actually living up to the crushing demands to make amends for centuries of injustice is too much to ask of any one man or any one administration in a full four–year term, let alone two years. There is anger, frustration and resentment in the minority communities that has been largely bottled up over the years, and those communities have been understandably eager to come to terms with the past and look to the future.

That would have been a challenging task even if the economy had been humming along, adding more jobs than were necessary each month to keep pace with the working–age population. Or if the American people hadn't been footing the bill — in more ways than one — for two wars.

Whatever the reason may be — and this is a complex issue so I have no doubt that several factors are at work here — those same liberals and/or Democrats who cheered on Sheehan when her presence was a daily thorn in Bush's side and who happily rode the wave of public dismay to victory under the banner of "Change!" two years ago don't like grassroots movements today.

At least, they don't like the so–called Tea Party movement.

Why? Again, there could be (and, undoubtedly, are) many answers to that question.

The one that makes the most sense to me is that the Tea Partiers represent a threat to the status quo. And it's a growing threat. So far this year, it has grown from a slow trickle to a shower.

The ones who are directly threatened by it don't know how to stop it so they look for ways to discredit it.

For some, that means discrediting the most visible spokesperson for the movement, Sarah Palin. I can only guess that is because, in spite of what I see as pretty significant obstacles to the GOP nomination, Palin is viewed in some quarters as a threat in the presidential race in 2012.

I expect to have more to say about Palin as this general election campaign unfolds so I won't spend much time on her in this post, but let me say that, at this point, I don't believe Palin is the problem for the Democrats. Personally, I think Obama and the Democrats should have focused their efforts from Day One on the issues that seemed likely on Inauguration Day to dominate the midterms. But they didn't.

Some liberals and/or Democrats have been dismissive of the Tea Party movement in general and the threat it poses. They've made jokes about it. I heard one, for example, who agreed that it was a legitimate movement — "a bowel movement," he said and laughed uproariously as if he had been the first person to come up with that pun.

There are none so blind as those who will not see.

Some have relied on the Democrats' favorite scapegoat — racism. This allows them to equate the Tea Party movement with racial bias — and avoid having to address the shortcomings of their own policies.

Does racism play a role with some people? Of course it does. To suggest, even in this presumably more enlightened age, that racism has been completely conquered would be as patently absurd and naive as the statements made by those who deny that the Holocaust ever happened.

People always have been — and, I imagine, always will be — suspicious of any person who differs from them in one way or more — race, religion, age, gender, etc.

Because that is so, I have no doubt that there are some Tea Partiers who have been against Obama from the beginning, primarily because he is black, and latch on to any popular movement that opposes anything Obama is for or supports anything he is against.

That isn't so radically different from what every president encounters, though. Every president has his hard–core base of supporters, even the unpopular ones. It was widely believed, for example, in 2009 that the entire country was ready to be rid of George W. Bush. And most Americans were — but there were some Americans who were sorry to see him go.

Bush's father and Jimmy Carter both lost bids for re–election. And Richard Nixon, who had been re–elected by a landslide less than two years earlier, was hemorrhaging support daily before he resigned rather than face a trial in the Senate that he seemed all but sure to lose.

But all three presidents did have their supporters, even in their darkest hours.

And even the popular presidents have had their hard–core bases of opposition. Their opponents always sound like Chicken Little, convinced that every initiative from the administration is leading the country down the road to perdition.

Their squawking usually sounds a bit hysterical and more than a little unlikely — unless the country already appears to be well down that road. Then it suddenly seems more plausible.

What's different now is that Obama's supporters can use race as their excuse for denying what is about to happen to them — until it happens. And they use it as a wedge just like the Republicans used patriotism. I'm sure some of the Lee Atwater wannabes in the Democratic Party are already working on post–election strategies pointing the finger at the racists in the electorate.

I guess this sort of tactic has the potential to be more pronounced when a president is a groundbreaker. Maybe it would have been no different if Hillary Clinton had been elected the first female president. The only real difference might have been the theme — men vs. women instead of black vs. white.

I suppose, in the midterms of 1982, some of Reagan's supporters could have blamed the anti–administration movement on age bias or puritanical attitudes about people who have been divorced (although that wouldn't really make much sense, considering that the voters who made up a significant part of Reagan's base in 1980 would have been the kind of Christian fundamentalists who disapproved of broken marriages).

Of course, the fact that Reagan's first marriage ended in divorce was never an issue in his presidential campaigns. And he became the first — and, so far, only — president who had been divorced. (For that matter, I don't recall Obama's race being mentioned very much in 2008.)

Or in the 1962 midterms, some of John F. Kennedy's supporters could have blamed religious bigotry if things had gone against them. We'll never know if 1962 would have been a Republican year. The Cuban missile crisis that October made Americans rally behind their president and his congressional allies when they went to the polls.

I guess it all depends on whose ox is being gored.

Racism is a handy excuse, but it doesn't tell the whole story. Of course, I suppose that relatively few excuses ever do manage to tell the whole story. But when was the last time you heard anyone — least of all a politician — who gave a damn about getting the whole story?

In my experience, almost all the time, people are only interested in the details that support what they have already concluded, whatever serves their agenda. To hell with everyone else.

Trust me. I have lots of experience in this area.

To me, a tendency to inject the subject of race whenever someone disagrees with the president suggests that the president's defenders aren't interested in hearing about that disagreement and the reasons for it, regardless of that person's race, gender, age or religion.

This suggests a dangerous belief that all that counts is what the president thinks. To have a different opinion is evidence of an absence of patriotism (or, in modern spin, proof of racism). Isn't that the kind of blind loyalty that so many Democrats openly ridiculed in George W. Bush's supporters, who concluded that opposing the war in Iraq was proof that someone did not support American troops?

Whatever happened to all that high–minded talk from Democrats a few years ago about how disagreeing with the president was not unpatriotic but rather a display of genuine patriotism?

Extremist movements are always seen as a threat to the other side. And the Tea Party movement is an extremist movement. But it isn't gaining traction because of the president's race. It is gaining traction because people are afraid, and the administration has done nothing to allay those fears.

It is a movement that Obama could have nipped in the bud. He could have, but he didn't. These are times that call for bold measures. Obama took timid steps. And he is paying for that now.

His actions in the first months of his presidency suggested to many voters that he did not take joblessness as seriously as the voters had believed he did. It told them he had no plan for fighting unemployment, and many were terrified by this knowledge as they saw job losses — at monthly rates in six digits — mount in 2009.

They have been through too much in the last 19 months to be fooled by Obama's sudden flurry of economic activity, his burst of initiatives that seem designed to appease the unemployed, much like Obama tried unsuccessfully to appease the Republicans in Congress.

I have read some columns recently by some people who say the Tea Partiers who have been getting nominated by the Republicans may actually offer the Democrats their last glimmer of hope of retaining control of Congress — because the Tea Partiers are perceived as being so far to the right.

A few weeks ago, I was talking on the phone with an old family friend who happens to be a Republican — more moderate than most. And she was worried about what could happen if the Tea Partiers won a lot of races this year.

I told her that I didn't think many would win — and I still feel that way, even after yesterday's primaries — but the fear factor is really the wild card.

Some of the places where Tea Partiers have been nominated for Senate seats — like Alaska — have deep Libertarian streaks, and they are likely to send a Tea Partier to the Senate. Some places are iffy — but still likely to elect a Tea Partier in the present environment.

And then there are places like Delaware, which sent Joe Biden to Washington for more than 30 years. Now, as vice president, Biden presides over the Senate, and, at one time, his son was thought to be his heir apparent in this year's special election to replace him.

But, when his son announced that he wouldn't seek the seat after all, the revised conventional wisdom was that Republicans would win the seat. The state's Republicans, after all, appeared likely to nominate popular moderate Rep. Mike Castle to run for it.

But that didn't happen. Tea Partier Christine O'Donnell won the nomination this week. And, at first glance, I have to wonder if she can win in Delaware — which, in my mind, moves the seat from the Leans Republican column to the Toss–up column. For now.

I mean, if Delaware Republicans nominated O'Donnell — "a perennial loser with a trainload of baggage," in the words of Newsweek's Howard Fineman — logic tells me that the GOP's road to a majority in the Senate is a bit steeper and rockier than it appeared to be only a few days ago.

But that is how it looks to me in September. What remains to be seen is how much more fearful people will be in about seven weeks. How much angrier will they be at the administration for permitting so much suffering to continue?

And how much will they punish the Democrats for it?

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