Saturday, February 12, 2011

Strange Bedfellows

One of the signature characteristics of the Tea Party movement during the last election was its utter disregard for intellectual consistency. This phenomenon took different forms in different moments and different places, of course. There was the sudden concern about the deficit that few Tea Partiers had given the slightest notice with respect to, say, the $1,000,000,000,000+ spent on the Iraq and Afghan wars. There was the outrage that President Obama was a socialist (or was it a Fascist? it’s so hard to keep up) because of the bank bailout (which, of course, happened in the Bush Administration)… but actually collecting on a mere fraction of the debt legitimately owed to the American people by the callous and venal operatives of BP in the wake of the Gulf disaster would be similarly socialistic.

There were the cries of anti-Americanism against anyone who didn’t share their jingoism, even as they claimed their movement was primarily if not exclusively economically motivated. Finally, there is the completely ginned-up and astroturfed outrage that gives the party its name (Taxed Enough Already), when the overwhelming majority of us pay less in taxes now than during the George W. Bush years, and the overall tax rate is lower than at any time since the Eisenhower administration. In short, the average Tea Partier has always been readily, and not altogether inaccurately, characterized as equal parts ignorant, stupid, gullible, and arrogant.

The GOP was happy to have the energized base and claims to populism, even if the outrageousness of Tea Party candidates may have blunted Republican gains in the 2010 elections (my post-election analysis here). The traditional party hierarchy, that gaggle of white Christian men (oh, and one token white male Jew), paid lip service to Tea Party concerns, but underestimated the fledgling libertarian movement’s desire for a quid pro quo in terms of roles in leadership and, indeed, policy decisions.

Now it turns out that at least some of the Tea Party-backed House freshmen, in alliance with intellectually honest libertarians in the GOP, are making some waves. I’m not talking here of the paranoid delusions professed (notice I didn’t say “believed”) by the Michele Bachmanns and Glenn Becks of the world. What completely baffles the Republican Old Guard is that, unlike their own rhetoric, that of the Tea Party is sometimes… wait for it… sincere.

I can’t blame the GOP leadership too much—I was caught off guard, too. But here are two stories that suggest that there are members of the Republican Party who actually believe in limited government.

First is the first significant (because unexpected) defeat of the new GOP leadership in the House of Representatives. Speaker John Boehner figured there wouldn’t be any problem getting the required 2/3 majority to fast-track the extension of three of the more perfidious provisions of the Patriot Act, that utterly unnecessary, invasive, and oft-abused paean to Bush-era fear-mongering. Boehner guessed, correctly, that there were enough Democrats who either really were Big Government proponents or were sufficiently gutless that they’d cave on any issue if the opposition merely intoned the magical incantation, “National Security.”

What the Great Orange One didn’t count on was that, whether because of, despite, or independent of the prodding of Dennis Kucinich, who specifically courted “members of the Tea Party who came to Congress to defend the Constitution,” some 26 GOP Representatives, including seven Tea Party-supported freshmen, broke ranks and actually voted against an over-reaching government. The Patriot Act itself, of course, was an insidious intrusion into the lives of citizens against whom there isn’t enough evidence to get a warrant, even though every cop and every prosecutor at every level knows at least one judge who would grant such a warrant based on the merest whiff of speculative evidence.

To be sure, there are many lessons to be learned here, including the fact that the Obama administration has failed once again to overturn the transgressions of their predecessors: politicians like power. Moreover, this victory for civil liberties is, of course, likely to be short-lived, as the proposal will be back ere long in a different form, requiring and no doubt receiving a mere majority vote. It is certainly possible, too, to overstate the role of Tea Partiers and indeed of Republicans in general in the outcome of the recent vote: Democrats are in the minority, but over four times as many of them as Republicans voted not to extend the law. Furthermore, nearly 85% of the official membership of the Tea Party caucus voted in favor of the extension. An administrator of the Facebook group Americans Against the Tea Party stated flatly that the “Tea Party did not help defeat the extension of the PATRIOT Act.”

Still, when a bill comes up seven votes short of passage and at least that many self-described Tea Party members voted “nay,” it would be petulant and unfair not to give them some of the credit—after all, the Democrats, from a President who seems to find the Constitution nearly as inconvenient a document as his predecessor did, on down through the House rank and file, nearly 70 of whom couldn’t be enticed to vote against extending the worst law in recent memory, didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory.

The second stirring of the libertarian wing of the GOP (I’m not sure if the individuals involved identify as Tea Partiers or not) comes from the state legislature in Wyoming, where two state representatives, unsurprisingly both female, went toe to toe with someone Rachel Maddow aptly calls a “culture warrior, a big, intrusive government statehouse member by the name of Bob Brechtel.” Mr. Brechtel introduced a bill which would not merely allow but to demand governmental interference in women’s decisions about whether or not to have an abortion: to require doctors to tell them they have a right to see an active ultrasound, to tell them a bunch of medically suspect claims about fetal pain, to insist on a 24-hour waiting period between the consultation and the procedure, etc.—the usual attempts to add a little more misery to young women who are already faced with a harrowing decision in medical, ethical, and pragmatic terms, in other words.

Enter Representatives Lisa Shepperson and Sue Wallis. There’s nothing particularly new about what they have to say: that medical consultations are and ought to be “the most private thing you can imagine” (Shepperson), and that, since every case is different, “our ability as free moral agents cannot justify these broad strokes” (Wallis). Wallis did tell of her own abortion decision, which came on the heels of a bout with cancer. That humanizes the discussion, to be sure, but women like Ms. Wallis have courageously been telling their stories in such venues for years.

What separates these women’s speeches from those we’ve heard a thousand times before, however, isn’t merely that they’re coming from elected Republican women, although that’s part of it. I confess that I can’t remember the last time I’ve heard this rhetoric from that source. But what’s really significant to me is that both these legislators crafted their arguments by appealing to beliefs the GOP purports to value: small government and individual responsibility. It’s an argument that’s needed to be made, in the same way that Ted Olson’s persuasiveness, not simply as a very good lawyer, but indeed as a Republican has been instrumental in overturning DADT.

What’s more, they succeeded, in an overwhelmingly Republican state with a legislature to match, in defeating Brechtel’s bill. He has re-introduced it, but in a watered-down form, devoid of the most invasive provisions. It will probably pass, the same way the Patriot Act will almost certainly be rammed through Congress by a coalition of bigots, faux law-and-order types, and Big Government megalomaniacs of both parties. But—and, unfortunately this counts as a win in today’s political climate—it won’t be as bad as it might have been.

But these stories, even if they represent only a delay or a slight dilution of horrible legislation, do have meaning. They remind us that the Republican Party is every bit as “Big Government” as their Democratic counterparts—they just want a different big government. Don’t hold your breath to see anything that looks like a real balanced budget coming from these guys: there will be cuts to education, to the arts, the PBS/NPR, to financial aid, to salaries for state, federal and local employees like cops and teachers (and university professors), possibly even to Social Security. But don’t expect that totally useless missile system to get scaled back, or that modest tax increase on the ridiculously wealthy to levels still lower than during the Reagan administration to be enacted. Don’t think the GOP will pass on an opportunity to spy on you without any real reason, to criminalize your sexuality, or to deny your right to worship as you please unless you thump the Bible with both hands.

Some six years ago, when Samuel Alito had just been confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice, I wrote in my old blog that “it's just possible that Mr. Alito is in fact a jurist of ‘steady demeanor, careful judgment and complete integrity,’ just as President Bush described him. Wouldn't that spoil Bush's day!” I’m having another of those moments today. I think there are more legitimate uses of government than true libertarians do, but their position is at least logically and ethically consistent.

GOP leaders from Reagan to Bush to Boehner and McConnell, however, see small government as more of a bumper sticker than a philosophy (to be fair, it’s a better slogan than “Tax Breaks for Millionaires and Spies in Your Bedroom”). Whether the true small government advocates on the right will be willing to join forces with civil libertarians on the left on an ongoing basis remains to be seen. But, given the policy disputes that might be affected by such an alliance—abortion rights restrictions, gay marriage, the continuing saga of DADT—the old adage that “politics makes strange bedfellows” has never seemed more apt.

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