I suffer from Tea Party envy. There is little about the actual party I like and there are some members I abhor, but I am jealous of its sense of purpose, its determination and its bracing conviction that it is absolutely right. In its own way, it waves a crimson battle flag while President Obama’s is a sickly taupe — the limp banner of an ideological muddle.
Obama would be a good White House chief of staff, but as a president he lacks political savvy. He never knew how to get ahead of the Tea Party wave. He never knew how to marshal — or create — his own constituency. Republican invective notwithstanding, he lacks demagogic tools. He tries to solve problems instead of, for the Republicans, creating them. Barack Obama does not do pain.
Still, Obama came to the White House at a tough time for a Democrat. Washington has gone topsy-turvy. The liberal party, the Democrats, has turned conservative. Its lawmakers want to conserve Social Security and conserve Medicare and conserve myriad other programs that have turned into patronage plums for important constituencies.
The Republicans of the Tea Party, on the other hand, say they are conservatives, but they are really radicals — maybe even nihilists. They would rather destroy than compromise. They are drunk on bromides about Big Government and Small Business and the virtues of a balanced budget, no matter what damage all that does to an already sick economy. In another era, folks with this mentality would be yelling “Power to the people” or some such thing, because a good slogan is more persuasive than careful analysis any day. You can, as they say, look that up.
Obama is the president of political ennui. I say this out of empathy. He is like many of us, post-ideological. The rousing causes of yesteryear have faded — civil rights, voting rights, women’s rights and the antiwar fervor of the Vietnam era. Even gay rights has lost its urgency. Gay people get elected to public office and can marry in certain states. The outcome of this fight is not in doubt.
Obama’s slogan was “Change.” It was supposed to suggest no more politics for the sake of politics. No more special-interest legislation. No more bridges to nowhere. But ever since the New Deal, the Democrats have been the party of programs. They spend money, and now there is really no money to spend. For the Democrats, this is a considerable challenge. They are empty of political innovation.
The Tea Party is not. It knows precisely what it wants to do. It stands in shimmering contrast to Obama, who seems vaguely at a loss. He had ideas galore, but they were merely interesting and not powered by ideological passion. He liked. He didn’t love. Afghanistan is the epitome of Obamaism: More troops and then fewer troops and the goal is not to win, just merely to end it so that it does not look like a loss. It’s a vaporous policy, a war in the spirit of the one waged in Libya, which could have ended by now had the United States not stopped its active participation. Does he want to win? Does he care about losing? What’s the cause? Obama’s wars lack music.
The odd thing about the Tea Party is that it uses Washington to attack Washington. This is a version of Hannah Arendt’s observation that totalitarian movements use democratic institutions to destroy democracy. (This is what Islamic radicals will do in Egypt.) Note that the Tea Party is nowhere near a majority — not in the House and not in the Senate. Its followers have only 60 seats in the 435-member House, but in a textbook application of political power they were able to use parliamentary rules to drive the congressional agenda. As we have known since Lenin’s day, a determined minority is hands down better than an irresolute majority.
The Tea Party has recklessly diminished the power and reach of the United States. It has shrunk the government and will, if it can, further deprive it of revenue. The domestic economy will suffer and the gap between rich and poor, the educated and the indolently schooled, will continue to widen. International relations will lack a dominant power able to enforce the rule of law, and the bad guys will be freer to be as bad as they want. Maybe the deficit will be brought under control, but nothing else will. I worry — and I envy (but will not forgive) those who don’t.