After twenty years one becomes jaded. Hollywood just doesn’t seem that exciting, and the Sunset Strip is just irritating, at least at night. It’s the traffic, and the places people have decided they really must go. The Laugh Factory is down on the corner here, in the same complex with the tiny original Hyde Lounge, which is invitation-only hip, for the right people, and by ten at night surrounded by would-be paparazzi – but it’s been about a decade since Paris Hilton got into fistfight with Lindsey Lohan in the parking lot out back. There’s nothing there, and Schwab’s Drug Store, where Harold Arlen pulled over one night in 1938 and scribbled down “Over the Rainbow” in the light from the neon sign, and where Lana Turner was not discovered, is no longer across the street – just a multiplex and a giant trendy gym and a Trader Joe’s, and a Starbucks of course. As for the Laugh Factory, it’s minor league – the Comedy Store, four blocks west on the same side of the street, is where all the big-name comics got their start. The Laugh Factory is for has-been and never-will-be desperate comics, but the wide-eyed tourists from Iowa don’t know the difference. Hey, it’s Hollywood!
No one who actually lives here in Hollywood shows up there, or shows up anywhere else on the Strip for that matter. They stay home and go about the everyday business of living – paying the bills, feeding the cat, watching a little television. One night at the Laugh Factory, twenty years ago, was enough. The scruffy comics laughed long and hard at their own jokes, to bewildered silence, and that night Rodney Dangerfield slipped in the back of the room, to be noticed – he was promoting a new film – and muttered how “he don’t get no respect” a few times and slipped out again.
That said it all. Everyone is Hollywood is a lost soul, trying to parlay their nothingness into fame and fortune, and there are better things to do than to pay a lot of money to help them along. The Laugh Factory in Manhattan is directly across the street from that new Renzo Piano glass-and-steel New York Times skyscraper, and it’s probably the same there too, on both sides of the street. The oddest people want your attention, and your respect, and if possible, a good chunk of your money. There’s really no reason to participate in that.
Okay, forget the Laugh Factory. Think of the basement ballroom at the Hyatt hotel in Washington, just down the hill from the Capitol, where the Tea Party Patriots just held their Fifth Anniversary bash, five years after Rick Santelli come up with the idea of the Tea Party. Back in early 2009 he was the one who may have started it all with his rant on CNBC about the Homeowners Affordability and Stability Plan and how the losers who took out mortgages they couldn’t afford shouldn’t get any help at all from the government. The government shouldn’t use taxpayer money to bail out such pathetic fools. It was fairly standard libertarian stuff, but it was condensed nicely into the basics, as he saw them – get rich, keep all your stuff, and sneer at those who aren’t rich, because everyone’s scorn was what they deserved. Even if it helps the economy, bail out no one, ever. The banks and the financial services industry had done nothing wrong at all, really. Let the total losers in life curl up and die.
The good people will do just fine, and that classic One Percent rant grew into a movement to end all taxes, if possible, and stop Obamacare from robbing the good people to give healthcare to the lazy losers, and to elect all sorts of people who will fight hard to keep the government from doing much of anything at all, because government is evil, and taxes are theft, and so on and so forth. Now these people, after five years of this stuff, want your attention, and your respect, and if possible, a bit of your money, just like at the Laugh Factory – without the dead-on-arrival bad jokes.
The New York Times reports on how this is still minor league:
The list of marquee names on hand was testament to the growing clout of the Tea Party: Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee – all three elected to the Senate thanks to its activist support.
But inside the Tea Party Patriots anniversary event on Capitol Hill on Thursday, timed to commemorate five years from the day Rick Santelli, a CNBC journalist, delivered an on-air tirade that helped spark the political movement, there was a sense of dejection and restlessness along with the congratulations and cheer.
“I think after the 2012 election the Tea Party is really finding its own identity,” said Judd Saul, a filmmaker from Cedar Falls, Iowa, who was there to promote his new film about the Internal Revenue Service, “Unfair.”
“The Tea Party will be coming back with a vengeance,” he added. “But we’re still in the rebuilding phase.”
As with the fourth-string comics down the street here at the Laugh Factory, we’re talking about a work in progress, because they don’t know which material to use, the crude stuff or the genteel stuff:
“The way to defeat establishment inertia is not by finding and discarding heretics as much as it is about winning a civil debate,” said Senator Lee, of Utah, “A civil debate, not a civil war.”
The contrasting approaches of Mr. Lee’s two colleagues in the Senate, Mr. Paul of Kentucky and Mr. Cruz of Texas, who are both considering seeking the presidency in 2016, captured the tension.
Mr. Paul has been pushing a more ecumenical path for Republicans.
“In order for us to be a bigger party though, we have to reach out to more people, more than just those of us here,” he told the crowd.
“I disagree with the president all the time; I don’t call him names,” he added. “There are people out in the public who are taking away from our message. And let’s try not to be a part of that.”
Mr. Cruz seemed less interested in the “big tent” philosophy that Mr. Paul espoused. And he did not seem particularly concerned that coarseness in the political debate was a problem.
It’s the get-nasty or stay-nice dilemma that every comic faces – to be Lenny Bruce or Jay Leno – but since these folks pride themselves on being a grassroots movement, and hate the idea of a leader of any sort deciding which it should be, they can’t solve that dilemma:
There were anti-tax and antigovernment activists like Mr. Saul. There were fiscal hawks like Gary Anderson from Worcester, Mass., who was part of a group called Tea Party in Space that says it wants to shed light on wasteful spending at NASA.
There were libertarians like Steve Hoodjer from Parkersburg, Iowa, who said he traced the birth of the Tea Party movement not to 2009 but to 2007, when supporters of former Representative Ron Paul, the senator’s father, invoked the original Boston Tea Party for inspiration. He was unimpressed with Rand Paul and said, “The apple’s fallen a little far from the tree.”
Conservatives were already facing tensions over one of their biggest annual speaking events, the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. It starts next week. The conference, which has in previous years faced boycotts over controversies like its exclusion of gay Republicans, is facing criticism for inviting a group of atheists. CPAC has reportedly rescinded the invitation.
A rival conference, organized by conservative activists like Stephen K. Bannon, executive chairman of Breitbart News, is being set up at a hotel across the street. They are calling it the Uninvited, and it will feature speakers like Phyllis Schlafly and Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas, who are popular with the grass roots but not on the CPAC agenda.
In short, it was another night at the Laugh Factory, amateur night at the local comedy club, with John Boehner, Speaker of the House representing the hated establishment and thus not attending, adding this:
I have made it clear that I have great respect for the Tea Party and the energy that they have brought to the electoral process. My gripe is not with the Tea Party. My gripe is with some Washington organizations who feel like they’ve got to go raise money by beating up on me and others.
Well, yeah, the audience in the basement ballroom at the Hyatt cheered loudly when any speaker called for his removal, but an ABC News item suggests the problem is with folks hating the establishment, even their own:
Several tea party candidates have suffered embarrassing revelations in recent weeks, from Kansas doctor Milton Wolf, a challenger to longtime Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, who acknowledged posting gruesome X-ray images of patients on Facebook to Kentucky businessman Matt Bevin, challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has struggled to explain his apparent past support for the Wall Street bailout program that he now campaigns against.
Establishment Republicans – in defending their incumbents against challengers within their own party – have been aggressive in pointing to these missteps as evidence that some elements of the tea party movement, particularly outside groups who are offering these candidates financial support, are pursuing a nihilistic agenda.
“It’s clear these outside groups spent very little time actually vetting their endorsed candidates,” said Brian Walsh, a former communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “And that information is coming to the surface earlier than it did in previous cycles.”
In essence, some tea party candidates may fail to net victories in their most coveted races this year because despite the trappings of a mature political operation, they are still far behind in some key but basic areas of the modern campaign: candidate vetting and opposition research.
In Hollywood, that’s known as not being ready for prime time. That’s Laugh Factory stuff, but then the establishment of the party isn’t much better, as Jonathan Chait explains here:
Lots of people treat the Republican Party’s inability to unify around an alternative health-care plan, four years after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, as some kind of homework assignment they keep procrastinating on. But the problem isn’t that Cantor and Boehner and Ryan would rather lie around on the sofa drinking beer and playing video games than write their health-care plan already.
It’s that there’s no plan out there that is both ideologically acceptable to conservatives and politically defensible. Carping from the sidelines is a great strategy for Republicans because status quo bias is extremely powerful. It lets them highlight the downside of every trade-off without owning any downside of their own. They can vaguely promise to solve any problem with the status quo ante without exposing themselves to the risk any real reform entails. Republicans can exploit the disruption of the transition to Obamacare unencumbered by the reality that their own plans are even more disruptive.
A comic has to do more than stand on stage, point, and say look, that’s funny. There does have to be some there, there, although they’ve been faking this rather well:
Now, for this method to work, you need to pretend to have a plan of your own somewhere. Cathy McMorris-Rogers’s response to the State of the Union address heavily emphasized the message that Republicans were definitely, positively going to unveil their own health-care plan. “We have solutions to help you take home more of your pay, through lower taxes, cheaper energy costs and affordable health care,” she promised. “No, we shouldn’t go back to the things — the way things were, but this law is not working. Republicans believe health-care choices should be yours, not the government’s, and that whether you’re a boy with Down syndrome or a woman with breast cancer, you can find coverage and a doctor who will treat you.” Time noted that “the repeal and replace message is already working.”
The amazing thing here is that House Republicans have managed to sustain this any-day-now stance since the outset of a health-care debate that began five years ago.
Yeah, five years is a long time to wait for the punch-line, and Andrew Sullivan is depressed:
I know we’re all supposed to be used to this by now, and regard it as the way politics works, but seriously: is there a more glaring example of the subordination of the public good to opportunistic factionalism? The GOP acts as if its only goal is to get power, even if it has nothing much to offer about how it would tackle such tough problems as climate change or immigration reform or healthcare when it gets it. They are in this for the electoral game, as Mitch McConnell once famously explained.
Jonathan Bernstein adds this:
Chait mentions that this has been going on for years, but he doesn’t refer to the granddaddy of all “repeal and replace” claims: the op-ed written in early 2010 by House Republican committee chairmen promising not just a bill, but a whole process. They were going to hold hearings, draft a bill and bring it to the House floor. I haven’t checked recently, but last I looked the story was that they hadn’t even bothered with the hearings part. As Chait says, there’s just nothing there.
All comics need at least some material, but Bernstein may be being a bit unfair here. There have been some ideas; it’s just that Peter Weber explains here that their tentative ideas tend to be quite bad ideas:
The CBO analysis for Rep. Young’s bill to raise full-time employment to 40 hours, for example, found that the bill would raise the federal deficit by $74 billion while reducing the number of people getting employer-sponsored health insurance by about a million; about half of those people would go on Medicaid or other public programs, the other half would be uninsured.
It’s not clear the other Republican proposals would be popular in practice, either. Some of them, as the Washington Post’s editorial board notes, would be better than ObamaCare at holding down healthcare costs and incentivizing people to buy private health insurance. But they are more disruptive to the status quo – especially post-ObamaCare – and almost all of them would be ripe for articles about sick people losing coverage or watching their health insurance costs skyrocket.
And at that point they can do that Rodney Dangerfield thing and mutter about how they “get no respect” – but it won’t be funny. Dangerfield’s shtick – to use the vaudeville term – was funny because he didn’t deserve respect. He knew it. You knew it. That was the joke, and the Republicans famously can’t tell a joke. Comedy requires self-awareness.
There is a paucity of self-awareness in the Tea Party too, as the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent notes here:
The chatter continues today about Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s outburst at the National Governors meeting, with observers again decrying the “partisan wars” that have infected our “polarized” politics. Surely polarization is a real phenomenon on the elite level. Government is divided on the federal level and one-party control of state governments has increased. But the Jindal episode also illustrates the other side of this story: while the two parties are obviously locked in partisan stalemate, there is far less evidence that the voters are polarized on the issues themselves.
It’s like that comic laughing long and hard at his own jokes, to bewildered silence:
In Jindal’s diatribe, he claimed that Obama is “waving the white flag” on the economy by focusing on executive actions in the face of Congressional gridlock, and took a shot at Obama’s push to raise the minimum wage by decrying his “minimum wage economy.”
The evocation of the minimum wage sheds light on the real cause of “polarization.” Here is a policy that is supported by broad majorities, one that Republican officials have voted for in the past. Large chunks of Republican voters support it. But as two recent polls showed, Tea Party Republicans overwhelmingly oppose the hike – while non-Tea Party Republicans support it. The GOP position is dictated by the Tea Party.
They are running the show:
This applies to economic issues in general. While many Republicans see a need to develop a GOP poverty agenda, Republicans have shied away from policies that involve government spending money to combat poverty and increase mobility. On specific policies such as the extension of unemployment benefits, and more generally on the question of whether the federal government should act to reduce inequality, GOP stances are largely dictated by the preoccupations of Tea Party Republicans, whose economic worldview is largely isolated from the broader public, rather than non-Tea Party ones, which are much more in line with the rest of the country.
That explains bewildered silence, as what is being said doesn’t make any sense, even comic sense:
Jindal also used his diatribe to attack Obamacare. This is also instructive. Jindal has blocked the Medicaid expansion in Louisiana. Yet GOP governors blocking the expansion are playing mainly to conservative activists; GOP governors who have bucked that pressure and embraced the expansion are actually faring better politically than are those refusing to accommodate any part of Obamacare.
There is probably majority consensus even in Congress behind a host of proposals that would help alleviate poverty and spur the recovery: a minimum wage hike; a UI [unemployment insurance] extension; infrastructure investments to create jobs. Dem lawmakers are advocating for these proposals. Republican lawmakers oppose them.
This is followed by dead silence:
Pundits lament Congressional gridlock and dysfunction. But if we define “gridlock and dysfunction” to mean Congress is paralyzed from acting on policies that have majority support from the public and even in Congress, then the leading cause of the problem these observers themselves are identifying is that the Congressional GOP remains in thrall to the Tea Party agenda. If the Tea Party didn’t have that influence, all these proposals might have a better chance of moving forward; so might a broad budget deal combining tax hikes and spending cuts. It’s just that simple. That’s the main cause of the stalemate, and it’s why Obama is resorting to the executive actions Jindal laments.
We’ve had five years of this, and Obama is trying to yank the act that’s bombing from the stage. It’s called getting the hook – in vaudeville they actually used a big hook to yank the pathetic act off the stage. Obama will use executive directives, but it’s the same sort of thing.
Meanwhile, in the basement ballroom at the Hyatt hotel in Washington, now playing, enjoy the comic stylings of the Tea Party Patriots, and remember to tip your waiter! On the other hand, you could avoid low-end comedy clubs. They’re some of the most depressing places on earth.