On Wednesday, in a Senate-floor tirade heard round the world, John McCain practically smote down his staff and shouted, “You shall not pass!” to the “Cut, Cap and Balance” bill. The Tea Party movement, he said, was “foolish” to think that a balanced budget amendment could pass the Senate before the Aug. 2 default deadline. In a speech that will live in legend, or ought to, he quoted a Wall Street Journal editorial referring to certain opponents of the debt-ceiling raise as “Tea Party Hobbits.”
“The idea seems to be that if the House GOP refuses to raise the debt ceiling, a default crisis or gradual government shutdown will ensue, and the public will turn en masse against . . . Barack Obama,” the editorial reads. “The Republican House that failed to raise the debt ceiling would somehow escape all blame. Then Democrats would have no choice but to pass a balanced-budget amendment and reform entitlements, and the tea-party Hobbits could return to Middle Earth having defeated Mordor.”
Tea Party Hobbits. The phrase has stuck. Sharron Angle has released a statement insisting that this is a great compliment, because “As in the fable, it is the hobbits who are the heroes and save the land.”
But it was never an insult.
It’s not as though he called them “nasty, filthy, tricksy Hobbits” or Tea Party Ringwraiths. Or Tea Party Orcs.
If only the comparison were more apt.
If the Tea Party were behaving more like hobbits, I might not actually be developing an ulcer as the clock ticks toward Debt Doomsday. Individual hobbits may well come swooping in on the backs of eagles in dramatic fashion after saving the day. But hobbits, as a species, are somewhat set in their ways and generally not prone to elaborate, ill-conceived heroics in times of crisis. You want hobbits on your side because they are non-confrontational, loyal and true-hearted creatures — in spite of their general preference to avoid conflict of any sort.
“We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!”
Hobbits sometimes need to be rescued by eagles, but they don’t wear them on their clothing.
Hobbits don’t show up at rallies, unless they are worried that someone is about to invade the Shire.
The only kind of brinksmanship that Hobbits engage in is when they are actively trying to deposit a malignant ring in the fires of Mordor.
Hobbits are not fond of danger. They want to know how much things will cost and whether they’ll be back in time for tea.
To the idle observer, the only thing the Tea Party has in common with hobbits is the preference for tea. Unless their feet are hairy, and I wouldn’t like to get into that area of speculation.
Perhaps Hobbits are the wrong Middle Earth comparison.
They aren’t Orcs. That’s just rude.
Ents? Ents are slow-moving and made of trees, and they take a long time before they speak and generally say sensible, if ecologically sensitive things.
Of all the denizens of Middle Earth, they seem more like Men. They could be likened to Boromir, who thinks he has a better idea of how to handle the crisis than anyone else and winds up destroying himself — as the Journal editorial seemed to think likely.
“All we need to do to fix this debt crisis is kill Smaug and loot his hoard,” it seemed to explain. “It’s really quite fundamental.”
“Smaug maybe is China.” “Or John Boehner!”
Maybe they are Tom Bombadil. Tom Bombadil was wisely excised from the movie versions of “Lord of the Rings” because he seemed to have no serious ideas to contribute to the discussion. And when you see people such as Tea Party Leader Mark Meckler saying that raising the debt ceiling at all would be absolutely awful or people such as Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) suggesting that instead of raising the debt ceiling, we lower it, it’s enough to make you wander off into the woods singing, “Hey dol! Merry dol! Ring a dong dillo! Ring a dong! Hop along! Fal lal the willow,” because, well, what else can one do?
Five days to go until deadline and still no debt-ceiling increase?
No self-respecting hobbit would engage in this much brinksmanship. Hobbits have tidy larders and live in burrows under the Earth. Some would suggest that the Tea Party must live in a subterranean burrow if it actually thinks that failing to raise the debt ceiling would not be at least mildly catastrophic, but some would suggest almost anything.
Perhaps we need to read more Tolkien. The thing about “The Return of the King” is that it goes on much longer than it needs to, and every time you hope it will be over, it isn’t. That’s one thing it shares with the debt-ceiling debate.
“It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him,” wrote Tolkien. This is a bit of hobbit advice the Tea Party might take to heart. The debt ceiling is not some mythical beast. And the threat of default is a very, very live dragon.
Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit himself, soon to be the subject of a film, once noted: “Never laugh at live dragons, Bilbo you fool.”
“It became a favorite saying of his later,” Tolkien wrote, “and passed into a proverb.”
If only the Tea Party would heed it.