The son of a good friend is now in the first month of his post-grad work at a minor university somewhere northwest of London, and presumably getting used to bangers and mash and kippers for breakfast, and a lot of tea of course. London has always had coffeehouses, at least it has since the early eighteen century, and every nation on earth now has Starbucks. In fact, coffee was the rage in Europe for a time – the nickname of Bach’s cantata 211 is the Coffee Cantata. That’s actually a miniature comic opera – “If I can’t drink my bowl of coffee three times daily, then in my torment, I will shrivel up like a piece of roast goat.” That probably sounds better in the original German, but Americans can relate to the feeling. Leipzig, however, isn’t London. The traditional French breakfast may be a Gauloises, or seven, and what passes for coffee in Paris, but the Brits start their day with tea, and sip tea during the day on breaks, and there’s High Tea in the afternoon for the insufferably snooty. Coffee isn’t a basic part of their lives. That must take some getting used to.
Americans aren’t like that. We did start out dumping tea in Boston Harbor in a bit of a tax dispute with the Brits and then we never looked back. We do coffee, not tea – although out here in Los Angeles if you drive down Fairfax through Little Ethiopia, many of the restaurants there have signs reminding everyone that coffee originated in Ethiopia. Hey, you should drop in and try the real thing, but no one ever does – there’s never any parking – and it really doesn’t matter anymore. Coffee is now as American as apple pie, which of course made the whole ultranationalist Tea Party Movement kind of odd.
No, those folks really weren’t arguing that everyone should drink tea – that’s a sissy drink – they just wanted to engage in another tax dispute. The cry wasn’t exactly No Taxation Without Representation – it was something like No More Taxation At All, and then other matters got swept into the mix – government should do next to nothing at all and let people be free and let the losers shrivel up and die, and the budget should be balanced, and gays and minorities should just go away, and somehow Jesus should be involved in everything, and the rich should be left alone to be as rich as they wanted to be. It became a grab-bag of everything conservative, finally becoming quite pro-life. Women should have no say in matters relating to abortion and even contraception.
Maybe this was mission creep, but they were very angry – about most everything. They started mailing tea bags to each other, which was a bit quaint, but they sent a large contingent to Congress in the 2010 midterm elections, folks who would not compromise on anything. That pretty much shut down the government – John Boehner couldn’t herd them in any direction at all – so perhaps they made their point.
Things didn’t go that well in the Senate. The Republicans had a safe seat in Delaware but the Tea Party crowd tossed out the boring old-school Republican in their primary and forced the party to run the goofy Christine O’Donnell – who had to run an ad saying she really wasn’t a witch. She got clobbered. In Nevada, the Republicans had a chance of unseating Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, but they ran Sharron Angle – who scared the wits out of everyone. She was very strange, and the Democrats held that seat, and in fact they held onto the Senate. The movement hit a wall, and this year, in Indiana, the old-school Republican, Richard Lugar, was cast off for the Tea Party guy Richard Mourdock – the dour former coal executive who was endorsed and financed by Americans for Prosperity, the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, Citizens United and the Tea Party Express. That’s also turning out to be a disaster – as are Todd Akin in Missouri and Joe Walsh in Illinois – although with these three guys the issue is the politics of rape and abortion, of all things. The dispute is about how women’s lady-parts actually work and what God wants us to do about this and that. This is a long way from Boston Harbor.
Something is up here. Maybe the whole thing is over. At least that is what E. J. Dionne is arguing in the Washington Post:
If conservatism were winning, does anyone doubt that Romney would be running as a conservative? Yet unlike Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater, Romney is offering an echo, not a choice. His strategy at the end is to try to sneak into the White House on a chorus of me-too’s.
The right is going along because its partisans know Romney has no other option. This, too, is an acknowledgment of defeat, recognition that the grand ideological experiment heralded by the rise of the tea party has gained no traction. It also means that conservatives don’t believe that Romney really believes the moderate mush he’s putting forward now. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if the conservatives are forgiving Romney because they think he is lying, what should the rest of us think?
Almost all of the analysis of Romney’s highly public burning of the right’s catechism focuses on such tactical issues as whether his betrayal of principle will help him win over middle-of-the-road women and carry Ohio. What should engage us more is that a movement that won the 2010 elections with a bang is trying to triumph just two years later on the basis of a whimper.
The new and amazing Tea Party has gained no traction? Perhaps they were a flash in the pan. That’s what Dionne is saying:
The right wing has lost the election of 2012.
The evidence for this is overwhelming, yet it is the year’s best-kept secret. Mitt Romney would not be throwing virtually all of his past positions overboard if he thought the nation were ready to endorse the full-throated conservatism he embraced to win the Republican nomination.
Dionne says the last debate proved this:
Romney praised one Obama foreign policy initiative after another. He calmly abandoned much of what he had said during the previous 18 months. Gone were the hawkish assaults on Obama’s approach to Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Israel, China and nearly everywhere else. Romney was all about “peace.”
Romney’s most revealing line: “We don’t want another Iraq.” Thus did he bury without ceremony the great Bush-Cheney project. He renounced a war he had once supported with vehemence and enthusiasm.
Then there’s budget policy. If the Romney/Paul Ryan budget and tax ideas were so popular, why would the candidate and his sidekick – the one-time devotee of Ayn Rand – be investing so much energy in hiding the most important details of their plans? For that matter, why would Ryan feel obligated to forsake his love for Rand, the proud philosopher of “the virtue of selfishness” and the thinker he once said had inspired his public service?
Basically, the country favors raising taxes on the rich and opposes slashing all those government programs like Medicare and Social Security. Romney is not dumb, and as for his plan that really does call for cutting taxes on the rich, he has had to cool it on that. He knows better. So the Tea Party, which had been so invested in all this, might be dead.
Paul Waldman, writing in The American Prospect, sees the same thing:
There are no longer any Republicans with national ambitions, and precious few with even local ambitions, who will proclaim themselves Tea Partiers (Mitt Romney was smart enough to see this coming, so he carefully avoided saying “I’m a Tea Partier” on tape, though he certainly expressed his agreement with their views). The movement has come to be associated with extremism and recklessness, particularly after Tea Partiers in Congress forced a showdown over the debt limit that led to a downgrading of the nation’s credit rating. The Tea Party has also become synonymous with a particular brand of Republican politician, those ideologues so dumb and uninformed they barely realize how crazy their views are.
Yes, but – there’s always a caveat – Waldman argues that the Tea Party actually won:
We should clarify that the movement was always little more than a tri-corner hat slapped on top of the right wing of the GOP. That doesn’t mean that the Tea Party didn’t bring in many grassroots activists who hadn’t been involved in politics before, because it did. But their activism was not only shaped by old Washington hands like the people at FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, it traveled along paths well-worn by the right for decades. The Tea Party’s agenda was completely familiar: tax cuts for the wealthy, downward-directed class war, drastic budget cuts, essentially every part of the long-standing agenda of the far right.
But the fact that the Tea Party was never able to win the support of a majority of Americans and wound up discredited doesn’t mean that the movement didn’t accomplish extraordinary things. Their principal substantive victory, and it’s a huge one, was the elevation of concerns over the deficit and debt above nearly every other policy and moral consideration in Washington. Republicans and Democrats now agree that we need to enact the kind of austerity that is currently crippling many of Europe’s economies; their only disagreement is how severe that austerity should be.
No polling has even shown that most Americans give a damn about the debt, but some folks think it’s a matter of life and death, and those people are very loud. Now we have to talk about it all the time, and do so in the absence of the former Republican Party, which is now the Tea Party:
They transformed the Republican Party, or at least drastically accelerated the rightward movement that the GOP had been undergoing for years. Yes, a few of their nut-ball candidates lost races that would have been won by more mainstream Republicans. But in the process, their primary victories not only struck fear in the hearts of every incumbent Republican, they eliminated from the GOP those individuals who might be voices for moderation in the future. If Mitt Romney loses, there will naturally be a debate within the party over its future. And in that debate, there will be almost no one left to argue that the party should shift to the center, not further right. The GOP now is the Tea Party for all intents and purposes, which means that their views, extreme as they are, will be front and center in every policy debate and granted attention and respect by the news media.
Now we have no choice but to cut the budget to bring down the deficit, thanks to the Tea Party, along with all the rest:
Whenever a bunch of sub-literate members of Congress gather on the Capitol steps to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, the Tea Party will be there. Whenever a Republican senator up for re-election promises his state party that he’ll be more conservative than he ever was before, the Tea Party will be there. It may be largely gone, but it’ll be with us for a long time.
Is that us now? Markos Moulitsas, the founder and publisher of the widely read site Daily Kos, thinks that may not be true:
Not an original idea – but there’s a reason people like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock are saying the things they are saying. It’s because they believe them. It’s as if you said, “I love my mother,” and the whole country exploded in outrage. You’d be rightfully puzzled. You’d think, “why, obviously I love my mother, why the freakout?” at the same time people were demanding that you apologize. Why would you apologize for loving your mother?
And that’s where the modern GOP finds itself – completely out of the American mainstream on issue after issue. Yet they live in their safe little bubbles with Fox News and wingnut radio and the internet telling them the things they want to hear without the messiness of reality getting in the way.
So then they say crazy things about rape, or claim that President Barack Obama never called the Benghazi attacks an act of terror, or that it’s the Democrats who are trying to suppress the vote, or that only sluts want birth control, they are genuinely shocked when reality smacks them hard upside the head.
This is the same crowd that spent the entire primary season arguing that Republicans needed to move right in order to defeat Obama, forcing Mitt Romney into his “severe conservative” caricature. Yet in the general, it wasn’t until Romney moved far to his left that he regained some modicum of competitiveness. The “severe conservative” version of Romney was going nowhere fast. Some conservative country, huh?
That would mean Dionne is right. The right wing has lost the election of 2012 – no matter who wins. Romney says he no longer believes in anything he said he believed, because if he believed that stuff once he cannot believe it now, thus he changed his mind. Or maybe he still deeply believes all that stuff and just can’t say any of it now – he’s hiding what he truly believes, to win the election. Or maybe he believes nothing at all and just says things. That’s also possible.
This is anyone’s guess and that’s probably why in the new Rolling Stone interview with Obama, by historian Douglas Brinkley, we find this:
“You know, kids have good instincts,” Obama offered. “They look at the other guy and say, ‘Well, that’s a bullshitter, I can tell.'”
This will be the outrage of the day, and then be forgotten, but it gets to the point, and Paul Waldman simply calls Mitt Romney the emptiest candidate in presidential election history:
In the entire history of the United States of America, from George Washington’s election in 1789 on down, has there been a single candidate as unmoored from ideological principle or belief as Mitt Romney? I’m not just throwing an insult here, I ask this question sincerely. Because I can’t think of any. There have been middle-of-the road candidates, candidates eager to compromise, candidates who would divert attention to issues that weren’t all that important, and even candidates who at some point in their careers undertook a meaningful position change or two. For instance, early in George H.W. Bush’s career he was an outspoken supporter of abortion rights, just as Al Gore was anti-choice early in his; both changed their positions to align with their parties. But Romney truly does stand alone, not only for the sheer quantity of issues on which he has shifted, but for the frequency with which wholesale shifts have taken place.
Consider the last two weeks. The man is an enigma:
I had thought that no matter what else Romney might change his mind on, if there’s one thing he believes it’s that the wealth and privilege of the wealthy and privilege must be maintained and enhanced. But he even flip-flopped on that, not only pledging not to cut taxes on the wealthy (in contrast to what he said during the primaries), but actually proposing a huge tax increase on them (though I seem to be the only one who has noticed that that’s what Romney has in fact proposed). That neither his supporters nor his opponents believe that he really wants that just makes it all the more remarkable. I feel like we’ve gotten so used to the idea of Romney as a shape-shifter that what for a different candidate might have been greeted as a series of scandalous acts of cynicism was instead greeted with, “Yep, everybody saw that coming.”
Yes, no one batted an eye and Waldman offers grudging admiration of a sort, at least in terms of impeccable timing:
He waited to unveil it until the first presidential debate, when Republicans were at an emotional low point imagining that the president they hate with such consuming venom might waltz to a second term. After that, the new foreign policy Romney we met in the final debate came as no surprise. He calculated correctly that with the election so close his base wouldn’t care, that they’d accept anything that might improve their chances of getting rid of Barack Obama. Perhaps they’re grumbling in their private conversations, but I doubt it. They know that what matters is winning. They also understand that keeping a President Romney in line will take some work, but that’s an effort they’re ready for. And that would have been true whether he presented himself as newly Moderate Mitt in the last few weeks of the campaign or not.
Romney also probably understood that if he waited long enough, the press wouldn’t punish him much for an ideological refashioning either. At the end of a campaign, horse-race reporting and the focus on the most trivial of campaign quibbles goes from being a bias that colors coverage to swallowing the entirety of coverage. Who has time to write a story about Romney’s latest ideological metamorphosis, when there were 18 new polls released today and there are diners in Ohio whose customers have not yet been interviewed to plumb their deep swing-voter wisdom?
The man may believe nothing, but he does know how to game the system, which is terrifying:
I think by now we can safely say that when it comes to the things government does and the issues that confront the nation as a whole, he truly believes in nothing. It’s really quite remarkable that not only could he get so far, but that he has a real chance to become president of the United States.
Andrew Sullivan is certainly terrified:
Politicians change – but not so completely and back again without even a hair out of place. I find it chilling. And how, as president, in those inevitable moments of crisis will anyone be able to believe you? Because you could simply etch-a-sketch into another argument just as swiftly. I think the strategy to pull the Etch-A-Sketch just as vast numbers of low information voters tune in to the first debate was a stroke of cynical genius. But because it’s so obviously pure cynicism, the great initial taste begins to have a bit of a bitter after-taste. Who on earth is this man, and what would he do in office? I thought he had effectively remade himself into the leader of the Tea Party GOP. But since October 3, I’m just bewildered. And alarmed.
Ah, don’t fret, Andrew, as the General has your back:
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell broke with the Republican Party during the 2008 election, to endorse then-candidate Barack Obama for president, calling Obama a “transformational figure.” With 12 days to go before the presidential election, Powell publicly endorsed President Obama for re-election on “CBS This Morning” Thursday.
Colin Powell was direct enough about Obama:
When he took over, the country was in very, very difficult straits. We were in one of the worst recessions we had seen in recent times, close to a depression. The fiscal system was collapsing. Wall Street was in chaos, we had 800,000 jobs lost in that first month of the Obama administration and unemployment peaked a few months later at 10 percent. So we were in real trouble. The auto industry was collapsing, the housing was starting to collapse and we were in very difficult straits. And I saw over the next several years, stabilization come back in the financial community, housing is now starting to pick up after four years, it’s starting to pick up. Consumer confidence is rising.
That’s standard stuff, but this isn’t:
Powell expressed his concern about Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s changing positions on international affairs. “The governor who was saying things at the debate on Monday night was saying things that were quite different from what he said earlier. I’m not quite sure which Gov. Romney we would be getting with respect to foreign policy.”
“One day he has a certain strong view about staying in Afghanistan but then on Monday night he agrees with the withdrawal, same thing in Iraq. On almost every issue that was discussed on Monday night, Governor Romney agreed with the President with some nuances. But this is quite a different set of foreign policy views than he had earlier in the campaign. And my concern … is that sometimes I don’t sense that he has thought through these issues as thoroughly as he should have.”
Maybe he wasn’t thinking at all. Maybe he was just saying things, saying anything he hoped some fool would think sounded plausible. Those of us who have been English teachers remember student essays like that. It’s called padding. The words mean nothing. They just add up to the required word count and those essays don’t get a passing grade. English teachers are neither bewildered nor alarmed in these cases. They just smile sadly, and now the only question is whether more Americans will smile sadly at Romney’s obvious padding and vote for Obama, or more Americans will think Romney clever for dropping all his previous views and having none of his own at all now, and vote for him because what he really thinks will jump out at everyone once he’s in office. Surprise! He was a Tea Party guy all along.
That’s a gamble that might not be worth taking. There’s a reason Romney suddenly became the enigma he now is. Dionne may have it right. The Tea Party never made it. Americans woke up and smelled the coffee.