The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Pith And The Pendulum

Republicans, Tea Partiers, and Democrats All Need to Come Back to Reality . . . But Mostly Democrats

pith (noun) – important or essential, significant or weighty, forceful or vigorous

The surprise win by Tea Party-backed candidate Christine O’Donnell over the mainstream GOP’s choice of moderate Mike Castle in the Delaware Senate Republican primary has both Parties claiming victory and disputing the other side’s interpretation of events.

Democrats gloat O’Donnell’s extreme and sometimes ridiculous positions/statements has turned what appeared a close race into a sure win. Polling data agrees with this assessment. Even Rasmussen has moved Delaware from “Leans Democrat” to “Solid Democrat.” Republicans insist O’Donnell will close her current eleven-point deficit by November, just as the much-maligned Sharon Angle has pulled neck-and-neck with Senator Harry Reid in Virginia.

A weak but growing optimism has sprung up among Democrats that the Tea Party will prove an anchor around the neck of the nascent Republican comeback. They predict the gaffes and reactionary views of Tea Party candidates will drive voters away from the Republican brand and back to them. Republicans counter a grass roots movement is afoot to reject failed Democratic policies, insisting progressives “just don’t get it.”

Both sides need to be brought back to reality and the pundits were busy this morning attempting to convince their own that nothing is foolproof in politics, especially these days.

Conservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer insists the populist surge that brought O’Donnell victory in Delaware is pure debacle. “The very people who have most alerted the country to the perils of President Obam’s social democratic agenda may have just made it impossible for Republicans to retake the Senate and definitively stop that agenda.”

On the other hand, moderate columnist David Brooks of the New York Times contends Tea Party rhetoric has not scared away heartland Americans from the Republican ticket, including all-important Independent voters. He cites pollsters Charlie Cook, Peter Hart, Associated Press-Gfk, and the Pew Research Center to back up his claim that Americans currently “feel philosophically closer to the Republicans than to the Democrats.”

Back at the Washington Post, liberal columnist Eugene Robinson unhappily agrees that Tea Party histrionics will not translate into a backlash against Republicans. “Try as it might, the GOP probably can’t defeat itself. Not this year, anyway.”

The reason, according to Brooks, ought to be obvious. “It doesn’t matter that public approval of the GOP is now at its all-time low. It doesn’t matter that the Tea Party rhetoric is sometimes extreme . . . The economy and the Democrats are handing the GOP a great, unearned revival. Nothing, it seems, is more scary than one-Party Democratic control.”

The 2008 election was not an ideological shift, despite leaving Democrats firmly in control of the Legislative and Executive Branches. Instead, it reflected dissatisfaction with Republicans over languishing prosperity enjoyed disproportionably by the wealthy, foreign wars that were too expensive in both dollars and lives, and coddling of corporate greed that led to financial markets melting down.

Likewise, regaining control of the House and/or Senate in 2010 will not represent ordinary Americans rejecting President Obama’s attempts to move the country toward socialism. Instead, it will reflect dissatisfaction with Democrats over an agonizingly slow recovery and woefully insufficient job creation.

The pundits are divided, along surprising lines, over the of wisdom of bringing Tea Partiers into the Republican tent by former Alaskan Governor and Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, as well as other far-right populists. The mainstream Republicans who went along with such invitations “now have to worry about being devoured,” jokes Robinson.

Brooks, also in a facetious mood, posits Palin is surely a “Democratic double agent . . . [leading] large sections of the GOP into an intellectual cul de sac.” Krauthammer is less jovial, denouncing her endorsements as “reckless and irresponsible.”

Conservative Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan does not think Tea Partiers are in the GOP tent at all. She believes while mainstream Republicans argued over invitations, “a virtual third party was being born.”

However, Paul Goldman, a political strategist and a former chairperson of the Virginia Democratic Party, considers Palin underestimated by the opposition and underappreciated by her peers. Writing in the Washington Post, he calls her “the best asset the GOP has right now,” precisely for keeping Tea Partiers – and their votes – inside the Republican tent. “She remained strong and stood by her Party. She has become a bridge between the old Republican guard and the growing right-wing dissatisfaction.”

I agree with Goldman. A few far-right wing nut candidates might lose Republicans some seats this fall but this is nothing compared to scores of such candidates running as the third party Noonan envisions and effectively splitting the conservative vote. Granted, extremist candidates and officeholders could hurt Republicans down the road but Republicans need to win with what they have, just as Democratic progressives needed but sometimes have regretted attracting conservative Bluedogs into their tent.

The most relevant admonishment for both Parties comes from Noonan. “This fact marks our political age – The pendulum is swinging faster and in shorter arcs than it ever has in our lifetimes.”

The pendulum swung away hard from Republicans in 2006 and 2008, thrust in that direction by voter economic distress. It is about to swing away from Democrats, propelled by the same sources of discontent.

The caveat for Tea Partiers is that the pendulum’s arc is likely to continue as swiftly for them as it has for anybody else. The caveat for Republicans is that the pendulum is not swinging toward them so much as it is swinging away from anything perceived to be the status quo. The worst mistake they can make it to interpret the shift as a desire for a (permanent) return to normalcy, including "normalcy" as they tend to define it.

However, the greatest caveat remains for Democrats, especially those still in denial or those now trying to convince themselves the pendulum is out-of-control and doomed to flatten conservatives waiting for it with open arms. The pendulum is real, its swinging is real, the swing in under control, and it has pith – it is significant, weighty, and vigorous.

Democrats need to wake up to the new reality awaiting them for the next two years. As Robinson sternly concludes,
“Counting on the Republicans to self-immolate may be the Democrats’ hope, but it's not a plan.” Lacking a plan, Democrats will discover a pendulum that is out of control for them. They will awaken to unspeakable horror as the main characters in a story, entitled “The Pith and the Pendulum.”

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