Friday, July 23, 2010

Anger vs/ Vision at the November Midterm Election, and a Containment Cap for the Tea Party

(Editorial Note: Although the Bipartisan Bridge is committed to advancing bipartisanship, post-partisanship, and collaboration in government, elections are the exception to this principle, as stated on the Bipartisan Bridge website. It is very important, however, to confine the partisan combat of elections to a narrow period of time preceding an election. Thus, the following blog post is offered in that context, as the focus on the November 2010 election begins to elevate, prior to the September / October shift to a predominantly electoral mode.)

The November midterm elections will come at a challenging time for the US. The economy is still troubled, the BP oil spill will still be inflicting damage to the Gulf, the national debt is mounting, and the Tea Party is fomenting social rancor with racial, anti-immigrant, and anti-gay rhetoric. At the same time, the reforms that President Obama was elected to provide are being implemented and are having a positive impact toward revitalization of the economy, and increasing stability, sustainability, and security for Americans.

It is understandable that many Americans are frustrated and impatient. Our national temperament and the fast pace of 21st century lifestyles lead many of us to feel that even deep-seated problems and structural crises should be fully resolved by the time we check our email. We have become accustomed to instant results in this age of fast food, broadband, and high-speed transportation. Yet, just as an aircraft carrier cannot turn on a dime, the economy cannot instantly resurge after years of mismanagement and inattention that destabilized its foundations.

The Choice for the Midterm Elections

Progress would be imperiled if Americans were to flail and change Congressional direction simply out of frustration. The midterm election should be seen as an opportunity to advance the national strategy that Americans sought and which is well en route to being achieved. The election should be cast as a choice between (a) vision and actions for long-term US prosperity and economic growth, and effective use of government to solve entrenched problems, versus (b) anger over unreasonable expectations not having been fulfilled, and disengagement from forward-looking initiatives in favor of wistful notions of a 1950s-like economy and society. This would then invite debate on the vision which drives the parties, and mitigate the Tea Party's ability to proliferate anger.

Vision and Actions for US Prosperity and Effective Government

The Obama Administration and Congress have taken many major steps to put the country back on track toward long-term economic and social stability and success, most notably through health care reform, financial industry reform, and the economic stimulus bill. The Administration is also leading a number of other major initiatives which would improve our economy and social fabric, including legislation to bolster clean tech renewable energy and energy security, bolstering our economy by doubling exports within five years, education reform, and immigration reform.

Taken together, these efforts will revitalize our economy, ensure our stability and sustainability for decades to come, and enhance both our personal and national security. But they do take time to implement and for their effects to be felt, just as it took time for the effects of the previous Administration's policies to be fully felt in the form of a crisis. There is every reason to be confident that President Obama, who is doing what he said he would do when we elected him, is leading the country to improved quality of life, and pre-eminence in the global economy.

Anger and Disengagement

While prompt resolution is sought for the challenges which face us, the Tea Party has been trying to capitalize on the frustration. Although it was initially focused on fiscal responsibility issues, the Tea Party has morphed into an umbrella group for the resentful, being hijacked by those with other issues and agendas. It reflects other historical efforts to "get government off our backs" by minimizing federal government, favoring states' rights, enabling local control, and ultimately letting individuals act without regard for adverse societal impacts. The Tea Party has been co-opted by some to dismantle laws (e.g., Rand Paul on civil rights), by some to promote xenophobia and antipathy (e.g., J.D. Hayworth on immigration), and by others to oppose government generally (e.g., Sharron Angle on who knows what) in ways that its instigators did not intend. In each case, they seek to tap anger and disaffection with anything that they think is wrong in America. The Tea Party ultimately seeks to turn the clock back to an era that they preferred in terms of demographics, influence in society, and the need for regulation.

The Tea Party's strength is also its weakness. By being an expansive umbrella --- albeit for societal malcontents --- it consolidates a vocal minority of people and issues that most Americans do not support. The more that the Tea Party's blemishes are illuminated, the more people will gravitate back to a message of hope, vision, and progress. The Tea Party's "ideocracy" revisits the unglamorous and destructive tendency that we have seen at other times in US history when those who are disenchanted seek scapegoats and turn their frustration into venomous demonization. This has manifested in the Tea Party with increasingly racial, anti-immigrant, and anti-gay rhetoric which even the Tea Party itself acknowledged (laudably) by expelling one of its leaders, Mark Williams.

A more mainstream attempt to foster anger has been engaged recently by some Republicans who have embraced the moniker of "the party of NO" (e.g., Sen. Mitch McConnell declaring "we are proud to say no"). The virulent rhetoric of other Republicans has illuminated a propensity to catalyze anger (e.g., Rep. John Boehner's description of health reform as an "apocalypse" and of financial reform as "killing an ant with a nuclear weapon"), and opposing rather than engaging on policy (e.g., Sen. Jim DeMint saying "if we're able to stop Obama on [health reform], it will be his Waterloo", and that "It will break him"). The handful of Republicans who are willing to negotiate across the aisle for progress rather than promote anger are surely a constructive force; but they are the exception, rather than the norm.

Opposition without willingness to engage, influence, or compromise is corrosive, irresponsible, and self-defeating. It ignores the reality that Republicans are able to influence and gain compromises on legislation that is moving forward by matching the President's efforts toward bipartisanship, and it reflects the desire of some to make the federal government ineffective. Recent Republican opposition has been driven by a mix of devotion to protecting corporate interests, promoting the interests of the wealthy, and dismissing the needs of the majority of Americans. These core objectives are seen in their uniform opposition to health reform, the opposition to financial reform by all but a few, their opposition to extension of unemployment benefits, their crusade to make the Bush tax breaks permanent, and comments such as Boehner's and Rep. Joe Barton's infamous apology to BP.

The Impact of the Midterm Election

Elections are inherently partisan, and are the time when bipartisanship must be placed on hold while the core objectives of each party are illuminated. However, bipartisanship remains a vital objective and component for effective government, and members of both parties should strive for it in policy making. Thus, voters should be encouraged, when electing their representatives, to consider whether a candidate will be willing to work with and accommodate other views and positions. If candidates are elected out of anger, to provide opposition and intransigence, then it dooms the prospects for future bipartisanship. Thus, it is in the best interests of the electorate to choose candidates who are committed to governing effectively, in bipartisan collaboration, by instituting policies that will ensure America's success for decades to come to achieve positive results for the broadest base of Americans.

The Future: Results or Obstructionism

Neither party has an inherent monopoly on sound policies for the long-term prosperity of the American people. However, candidates who are propelled by anger to obstruct government and diminish its effectiveness clearly do not share a vision for progress. As we approach the midterm election, efforts should be made to highlight this distinction, encourage commitment to policies and legislation that will put the US in position for long-term economic and social stability and sustainability, and urge the electorate to vote for candidates who embody vision rather than anger. An election that is cast in these terms will blunt the derisive effect of the Tea Party and like-minded candidates.

American voters opted for hope and change in 2008, and have not forgotten that. They may just need to be reminded that revitalization and prosperity cannot be microwaved into achievement.