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Reading the tea leaves

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 6, 2010; 9:46 AM

The tea party movement -- if that angry, inchoate mass of disaffected dissidents deserves to be called a movement -- was probably the most surprising development of last year, and the most underestimated by the MSM.

It wasn't just that lots of folks turned out for protests, but that the demonstrators were fueled by considerable emotion -- which surfaced again amid the shouting of the summer's health-care town halls.

Even today, I can't tell you exactly what the tea partiers stand for, since the shorthand label covers all sorts of people with all kinds of grievances.

Most of them seem to me to be fiercely anti-Obama and anti-Democratic Party. They denounce big government, although they barely piped up when George W. Bush turned into a runaway spender. They throw around the word "socialism" a lot.

Their rhetoric is of the pox-on-both-parties variety, but they have clearly found a sympathetic hearing among some Republicans and Fox News commentators. So the tea types can either blossom into a Perotista-style third-party movement or be subsumed to some degree by the GOP.

The problem for the GOP, then, is whether its already tarnished brand could be further diminished by fringe elements among the protesters, who call the president a Muslim or liken him to Hitler. That's the thing about far-flung movements: not much message discipline.

But with two wars, a continuing terror threat, huge federal deficits and a major health-care overhaul in the works, there is no shortage of disaffection out there. And that could prove to be political dynamite.

The latest to taste the tea is NYT columnist David Brooks:

"The tea party movement is a large, fractious confederation of Americans who are defined by what they are against. They are against the concentrated power of the educated class. They believe big government, big business, big media and the affluent professionals are merging to form self-serving oligarchy -- with bloated government, unsustainable deficits, high taxes and intrusive regulation.

"The tea party movement is mostly famous for its flamboyant fringe. But it is now more popular than either major party. According to the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 41 percent of Americans have a positive view of the tea party movement. Only 35 percent of Americans have a positive view of the Democrats and only 28 percent have a positive view of the Republican Party. . . .

"Moreover, the tea party movement has passion. Think back on the recent decades of American history -- the way the hippies defined the 1960s; the feminists, the 1970s; the Christian conservatives, the 1980s. American history is often driven by passionate outsiders who force themselves into the center of American life.

"In the near term, the tea party tendency will dominate the Republican Party. It could be the ruin of the party, pulling it in an angry direction that suburban voters will not tolerate. But don't underestimate the deep reservoirs of public disgust."

Disgust pretty much sums up the reaction of Michelle Malkin: "David Brooks will never let an opportunity pass to remind you that he is an intellectual and you are a grimy member of the unwashed masses."

At the Daily Beast, GOP strategist Mark McKinnon is willing to sip the tea:

"Tea is the new Kool-Aid for Republicans. And a lot of candidates and officeholders on the right are drinking from it like a fire hose. And they tend to be some of the bigger media magnets in the party -- like Sarah Palin, say, and, lately, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, who's hitting the headlines over his bid to block a Transportation Security Administration nominee.

"Much of the media and most Democrats are dismissive of what is truly a grassroots movement. But the Tea Party has shown remarkable energy in its short life span--dating back about a year ago, when CNBC commentator Rick Santelli went on a live-TV rant about mortgage policy and suggested a Chicago Tea Party. . . .

"We increasingly see Republicans genuflecting to the movement that has more credibility than our own party in an effort to attract attention and support among mostly conservative voters. . . .

"The Tea Party crowd is unlikely to actually become a third party, but their ability to leverage energy behind candidates and policies could be very similar to what MoveOn.org has accomplished on the left."

Meanwhile, the New Republic's John Judis tosses what could be considered an epithet at POTUS:

"Barack Obama has been compared to almost every American president of the last hundred years--favorably to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan; and unfavorably to Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. I want to put another name in the hat: Herbert Hoover.

"It might seem ludicrous, or unfair, to compare Obama to one of the most vilified presidents of the last century, but that's because Hoover's reputation is largely, or at least somewhat, undeserved--the product of Democratic attacks and Hoover's own strident responses to these attacks. . . .

"Hoover failed, finally, because he shared the same assumptions about deficit spending and government intervention as most other politicians and economists of his day. He was willing for government to do more to combat the business cycle, but he feared that enlarging the state would lead to Soviet-style socialism, and he thought that in the end the economy would right itself the way it had before. Hoover had the potential to be a very good president, but he was overwhelmed by the unprecedented challenges that he faced.

"Obama, of course, is not making the same mistakes as Hoover or facing exactly the same situation. But Hoover's example shows that a person who is highly qualified to be president and who boasts significant accomplishments in office can still fail because of the enormity of the challenges he faces. Obama could enjoy great success in getting legislation through Congress, including national health care insurance; he could take larger steps than any of his predecessors, including Franklin Roosevelt, to pull the United States out of a slump; but he could still fail and bring his party down with him."

He could. But the Republicans still have to find someone to beat him.

Obama terror talk

If the president's goal was to be portrayed by the media as angrily taking charge of the airline security mess, he succeeded -- with help from background comments by White House aides.

LAT: "An angry President Obama said Tuesday that there had been 'unacceptable' failures in the American intelligence system that allowed an accused terrorist to board a U.S.-bound Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day, and vowed changes in security procedures and information gathering to avert future plots.

"The president held a lengthy afternoon session with top administration officials, during which agency heads acknowledged their shortcomings and laid plans for corrections."

WP: "President Obama said Tuesday that U.S. intelligence agencies could have prevented the attempt to bomb an airliner on Christmas Day, and used a grim and forceful White House statement to demand rapid improvements in efforts to protect Americans from attack."

NYT: "The tone of the president's remarks on Tuesday -- the sharpest of any of his statements since the incident nearly two weeks ago -- underscored his anger over the lapses in intelligence as well as his efforts to minimize any political risks from his administration's response. . . .

"In a meeting Tuesday with those officials, the president called the events leading up to the Christmas Day attack a 'screw up,' one White House official said, telling the assembled officials, 'We dodged a bullet, but just barely.' Mr. Obama, the official said, also told the group that he would not 'tolerate' finger-pointing."

'Why Jews Hate Palin'

I couldn't resist that headline in Commentary -- guaranteed clicks, right? -- and here's the case made by Jennifer Rubin:

"For her detractors, both conservative and liberal, she is uncouth, unschooled, a hick, anti-science and anti-intellectual, an upstart, and a religious fanatic. There is no group so firmly in the latter camp as American Jews. . . .

"While Palin enjoys support from some prominent Jewish conservatives, it is not an exaggeration to say that, more so than any other major political figure in recent memory (with the possible exception of Patrick J. Buchanan), she rubs Jews the wrong way. In a September 2008 poll by the American Jewish Committee (AJC), Jews disapproved of Palin as the pick for McCain's vice-presidential running mate by a 54 to 37 percent margin. (By contrast, 73 percent approved of the selection of Joseph Biden as Obama's.) Ask an average American Jew about Palin and you are likely to get a nonverbal response -- a shiver, a shudder, a roll of the eyes, or a guffaw."

That draws a rebuttal from fellow conservative but Palin detractor David Frum:

"Lots of people dislike Sarah Palin. Palin excites intense support among a core group of conservative Republicans. Beyond that base, she is one of the most unpopular figures in modern American life. She polls poorly among the young, among women, among independents. A plurality even of Republican women regard her as unqualified for the presidency.

"So if Jews do 'hate' Palin, this may be just another manifestation of the old rule about Jews being like other people, only more so. . . .

"Rubin's first point has merit to it: Jews do think that knowledge is important to a president. They do think a president should be able to think clearly and to distinguish between true information and wishful delusions. I feel sure most Americans of all faiths would agree. Does Jennifer Rubin seriously suggest that this opinion is mistaken? . . .

"I think the real and most fundamental problem Jews have with Palin is not her gleeful ignorance, but her willful divisiveness. More than any politician in memory, Palin seems to divide her fellow-Americans into first class and second class citizens, real Americans and not-so-real Americans."

The Rasmussen factor

Did Politico fall down in the homework department? Check out this piece:

"Democrats are turning their fire on Scott Rasmussen, the prolific independent pollster. . . .

"While Scott Rasmussen, the firm's president, contends that he has no ax to grind -- his bio notes that he has been 'an independent pollster for more than a decade' and 'has never been a campaign pollster or consultant for candidates seeking office' -- his opponents on the left insist he is the hand that feeds conservative talkers a daily trove of negative numbers that provides grist for attacks on Obama and the Democratic Party."

Sounds fair. But the liberal advocacy group Think Progress came up with this:

"According to the non-partisan Center for Public Integrity, Rasmussen has been a paid consultant for the RNC and President Bush's 2004 campaign. The RNC paid Rasmussen $95,500 between 2003 and 2004 for items listed as 'survey,' 'survey cost' and 'voter data.' Bush's campaign paid Rasmussen $45,500 for 'survey research.' "

Your government at work

The U.S. government may not have stopped a Nigerian underwear bomber, but it geared up against military blogger Michael Yon, who has been covering the Iraq and Afghan wars. He writes on his Facebook page:

"Got arrested at the Seattle airport for refusing to say how much money I make. (The uniformed ones say I was not 'arrested,' but they definitely handcuffed me.) Their videos and audios should show that I was polite, but simply refused questions that had nothing to do with national security. Port authority police eventually came -- they were professionals -- and rescued me from the border bullies."

Keep it short

Michael Kinsley says newspaper hacks are too verbose:

"One reason seekers of news are abandoning print newspapers for the Internet has nothing directly to do with technology. It's that newspaper articles are too long. On the Internet, news articles get to the point. Newspaper writing, by contrast, is encrusted with conventions that don't add to your understanding of the news. Newspaper writers are not to blame. These conventions are traditional, even mandatory. . . .

"In the current financial crisis, the New York Times and other papers seem to have given reporters more leeway than ever before to express their opinions directly. Editors may have realized that these issues are hard enough to explain without running into roadblocks at every turn labeled Warning: Opinion Territory Ahead. But the old wordy conventions survive. Quotes from strangers restating the reporter's opinion are one. Another is adding protective qualifiers to statements about which there is no real doubt. . . . A third -- illustrated by the headline. . . . 'Windfall Seen as Bonuses Are Paid in Stock' -- is to attribute the article's conclusion to unnamed others. Somebody sees a windfall. We're just telling you about it. . . .

"And then, finally, comes the end, or 'tag.' Few writers can resist the lure of closure -- some form of summing-up or leave-taking. Often this is a quote that repeats the central point one last time, perhaps combining it with some rueful irony about the limits of human agency."

Kinsley is right that many routine stories are too long, too stilted and too meandering. But in an age in which everyone knows the basic facts immediately, providing context and analysis, and getting people's voices into stories, is how newspapers distinguish themselves. Without in-depth reporting, which takes space, you might as well surf the Web all day.

To sum up: Kinsley is right about some things and wrong about others. Which, when you think about it, reflects the human condition.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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