Monday, September 20, 2010

The Tea Party Purity Test

As I see it, the context of Michael Gerson's lament on the Tea Party is that he represents the faction of the Republican Party that is taking the long view - that an embrace of the Tea Party is likely to bring long-term political pain even if it results in short-term gain. But if Michelle Malkin is his "Exhibit A" of "childish political thought", perhaps he should take ownership of and responsibility for his own past actions and opinions.
In Tea Party theory, inexperience is itself seen as a kind of qualification. People like O'Donnell are actually preferable to people like Rove, because they haven't been tainted by public trust or actual achievement. This is the attitude of the adolescent -- the belief that the world began on their thirteenth birthday. It is also a sign of childish political thought.
So let's flash back to 1999, when the nation at large was introduced to G.W. Bush, with that introduction engineered in no small part by Karl Rove. His inexperience was of no concern, we were assured, because he would surround himself by experts. He was a different breed of Republican - an outsider; a uniter, not a divider; a compassionate conservative; an advocate for immigration reform. Don't ask about his "lost years" - he had become a sober, Christian conservative, and that should be enough for anybody.

From what I've read, a lot of Tea Party members haven't been politically active during their lives. They may have voted, but they didn't spend a lot of time reading about or thinking about the issues. That, frankly, is far from a surprise. You can read the paper before work (or, at least, you could have back in the day of most Tea Party members), work all day, watch the TV news before bed and think you're informed, and that would likely set you above and beyond most Americans in terms of your effort. But let's face it - at the end of the day that's likely to leave you with only a superficial understanding of the issues. Hence partisans like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and, yes, Karl Rove are able to identify opportunities to sink their hooks and reel people in, the goal not being to illuminate but to create a following. Had Karl Rove created the Tea Party movement in his own image, Gerson would be praising his genius.

I find it interesting that Gerson blasts Michelle Malkin, for her criticism of Karl Rove, as part of the problem - she's "childish". Why not go after Rush Limbaugh for saying what amounts to the same thing. Why not go after the big dog? Oh, that's right - because for doing that even Karl Rove can be called to heel, and Gerson's no Karl Rove. Malkin's prominent enough to be recognized, but not so prominent that Gerson is likely to face blowback.

Gerson's first complaint about the Tea Party approach is that it sends the message,
The facts do not matter. Politics is war carried on by other means. Anyone who doesn't consistently take one side is a traitor.
Would any of that bother Gerson if the warfere weren't internecine? Michelle Malkin has been using the same tactics ever since she gained prominence. What about Ann Coulter and her eager use of the word "Treason"? The facts don't matter now? When did they matter under Bush?
In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
What about Ari Fleischer's infamous warning1 (his very late explanation taken for what it's worth)?

Gerson continues with his explanation of what makes the Tea Party's political thought "childish":
Some conservatives have adopted the Bolshevik approach to information and the media: Every personal feeling, every independent thought, every inconvenient fact, must be subordinated to the party line -- the Tea Party line.
This reminds me of something....
When I was a speechwriter for the Bush Administration, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a columnist for the Washington Post, I put away childish things.
Gerson's accusation is something of a hollow man - he doesn't name a conservative who fits his accusation, although by implication he's including Malkin. I doubt he can name a conservative commentator who truly fits that description, who has abandoned past opinions and principle and now subordinates his every opinion to the Tea Party. Were he to find such an individual he would do us all a very great favor, because we would finally know what the Tea Party stands for.

Gerson offers up a second criticism of "Tea Party purists", again without identifying a single such purist, as believing that "their ascendance makes other elements of the conservative movement unnecessary":
If Tea Party activists believe they can win in a political coalition so pure that it doesn't include strong, mainstream conservatives such as Karl Rove, they are delusional. And they are hurting their own cause.
Is this to be read with an eye toward history, with G.W. and Karl Rove deciding that they could rule the country based upon the support of 51% of the electorate, rejecting the qualms of the "paleocons", the "reality-based community", fiscal conservatives, foreign policy conservatives, and any other faction whose believes and agenda didn't match their own? If so, yes, he has a point - if you represent a minority of Americans you will not be able to sustain victory at the ballot box without expanding your base. If not, his complaint reduces to the question of whose elephant ox is being gored.

Gerson's third complaint is a magnification of his second,
Third, some conservatives seem to display special venom for those who are "compromised" by the experience of actually winning and governing. Rove, according to Malkin, is an "establishment Beltway strategist."
How much of the last few decades of political history, including campaigns involving Karl Rove, are we to ignore? Because in case Gerson missed it, everybody wants to be an outsider. One of G.W.'s remarkable feats in constructing his brush-cutting cowboy image was convincing the nation that he, grandson of a U.S. Senator, son of a former President, beneficiary of his family's vast wealth and generations of political connections, was a Washington outsider. When you work as hard as Rove has done to turn words like "insider" into slurs, you don't have much ground to stand on when your work is turned against you.
[Karl Rove's résumé] does not make him always right. But it means he has had responsibilities bigger than running a Web site. This is an advantage for a commentator, not a drawback.
I joked a while back that the most prominent people held up as possible Republican Presidential nominees - Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, and Mitt Romney - quit the jobs that supposedly qualify them for the White House. In their recent experience, the only thing they've been running is their mouths. I recognize that Gerson has no love for Sarah Palin, but what do his words say about the rest of his party?

But seriously, the number of prominent right-wing pundits whose most significant "real world" experience came from writing speeches for politicians is high. Can Gerson truly be surprised that many of them fail to 'put away' their 'childish things'?
1. While I have some sympathy for the idea that Fleischer, in warning Americans to "watch what they say, watch what they do", meant something other than what he said, he had ample opportunity on the very same stage to correct himself and the Bush Administration could easily have issued a clarification. The fact that they did not suggests that, whatever Fleischer's intent, the Bush Administration was content to let the public perception of the remarks stand.

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