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The Last White Election?


Last September, while Bill Clinton was delighting the 2012 Democratic Convention in Charlotte with his folksy jibe at Mitt Romney for wanting to ‘double up on the trickle down’, a fanatical adherent of Ludwig von Mises, wearing a villainous black cowboy hat and accompanied by a gun-toting bodyguard, captured the national headquarters of the Tea Party movement in Washington, DC. The Jack Palance double in the Stetson was Dick Armey. As House Majority Leader in 1997 he had participated in a botched plot, instigated by Republican Whip Tom DeLay and an obscure Ohio Congressman named John Boehner, to topple House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Now Armey was attempting to wrest total control of FreedomWorks, the organization most responsible for repackaging rank-and-file Republican rage as the ‘Tea Party rebellion’ as well as training and coordinating its activists. [1] Tea Party Patriots—a national network with several hundred affiliates—is one of its direct offshoots. As FreedomWorks’ chairperson, Armey symbolized an ideological continuity between the Republican congressional landslides of 1994 and 2010, the old ‘Contract with America’ and the new ‘Contract from America’. No one was better credentialed to inflict mortal damage on the myth of conservative solidarity.

Only in December did the lurid details of the coup leak to the press. According to the Washington Post, ‘the gun-wielding assistant escorted FreedomWorks’ top two employees off the premises, while Armey suspended several others who broke down in sobs at the news.’ [2] The chief target was Matt Kibbe, the organization’s president and co-author with Armey of the best-selling Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto. Although Kibbe, originally a protégé of Lee Atwater, is an equally devout Misean (indeed, ‘distinguished senior fellow’ at the Austrian Economics Center in Vienna), he is a generation younger than 72-year-old Armey or, for that matter, most of the Tea Party base. On the FreedomWorks website Kibbe describes himself as living ‘with Terry, his sublimely awesome wife of 25 years’ and spending his leisure time ‘reading Hayek or Rand, watching The Big Lebowski or listening to a killer Grateful Dead show.’ Yet as Armey himself had put it, ‘sometimes you’re the windshield and sometimes you’re the bug.’ [3]

Although he had support from powerful backers, including former White House counsellor C. Boyden Gray, Armey’s delusional dictatorship over Tea Party Central lasted less than a week. In conference calls with staff and supporters he denounced Kibbe for using the organization for self-publicity and personal profit (especially in the publication of his new book Hostile Takeover: Resisting Centralized Government’s Stranglehold on America) while keeping him—chairman and historical icon—out of the media limelight. Armey was also critical of the million-dollar annual fee that FreedomWorks pays Glenn Beck for publicity and fundraising (Rush Limbaugh reportedly has a similar deal). [4] In addition, Armey accused Kibbe’s team of failing to rally behind the doomed Senate campaign of Todd Akin, the Missouri ignoramus whose remarks about ‘legitimate rape’ had led Romney and other outraged party leaders to demand his withdrawal from the race. According to one staffer interviewed by the Post, ‘It was clear that under Armey’s leadership, the organization as we knew it was going to be driven into the ground.’ [5]

In the end, one of FreedomWorks’ major donors, Richard J. Stephenson, an Ayn Rand fan who operates a controversial but hugely profitable chain of private cancer treatment centres, offered Armey $8 million in installments to go back to his ranch in Texas. Kibbe resumed control over 400 North Capitol Street nw, but Armey supporters continue to spread rumours about staff wrongdoing. Tea Party blogs, in turn, have accused Armey first of extortion, then of treason after he told his side of the story to Mother Jones’s David Corn. In other circumstances this duel between the black hats and rightwing Deadheads would have been a ‘tempest in a teapot’, akin to the episodic defrocking of a famous televangelist or a Congressional adulterer. But Kibbe, a cool operator in a histrionic milieu, insisted that Armey and his backers were clumsily camouflaging the larger issues at stake. In an internal document he charged that the attempted takeover was just old-guard retaliation for FreedomWorks’ sponsorship of Tea Party activists in primary campaigns against ‘establishment Republicans’ (a term which in Tea Party/Sarah Palin circles can encompass Rick Perry and Lindsey Graham as well as John McCain, Haley Barbour and John Boehner). [6] As an example, Kibbe cited the controversial Arizona primary the previous spring where redistricting had pitted two incumbent Republican congressmen against each other: Ben Quayle, the son of Bush Senior’s vice president, and David Schweikert, a prodigy of Arizona ultra-conservatism. While Boyden Gray and other wealthy trustees donated to Quayle, Kibbe lionized Schweikert for standing up to Boehner and other gop grandees. [7]

It was inevitable that defeat in November 2012 would reopen every wound and rivalry amongst prominent Republicans, undoing all the hard work of Karl Rove and his billionaire friends in creating a beauty strip of party unity around the Romney campaign. Across the suburban steppes Republican factions started warring with each other. Since the last gop ‘moderates’ have been driven into extinction and 1980s-vintage Reaganites are gone to pasture, the current Republican civil war (as illustrated by the events at FreedomWorks) has a distinctly Oedipal dimension: jaded Gingrich revolutionaries versus their own demon spawn. Seldom in the history of the House of Representatives has the majority party so brutally cleaved itself down the middle as did the Republicans on New Year’s Day, when 151 members—including Majority Leader Eric Cantor, most of the freshmen and almost all of the Tea Party caucus—rejected the fiscal compromise (‘Plan B’) submitted by their own Speaker. Some prominent supporters of the rejectionist bloc immediately warned that the 85 Republicans, mainly from Northern and Western states, who had voted for the bill (along with 115 Democrats) could face capital punishment in the 2014 primaries. [8] The rift in Congress continued to deepen a few weeks later—largely along a Mason–Dixon fault line—when an even larger majority of the Republican caucus (179 members) voted against emergency aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy that was eagerly sought by Republicans from Northeastern states. Boehner’s dwindling band of conservative realists are discovering that the small-government fundamentalism of the Tea Party, originally heralded as the third wave of the Reagan Revolution, is actually the road to an elephant graveyard.

Canals on Mars

Democrats, for the most part, have been surprisingly wary in making world-historical claims about Obama’s reelection or the escalating Republican fratricide. Conservatives, re-experiencing the trauma of 2008, have been more inclined to interpret the results with eschatological hyperbole. Pat Buchanan bluntly declared, for instance: ‘At the presidential level, the Republican Party is at death’s door.’ Victor Davis Hanson, a former classics professor and farmer who fancies himself a Cato of the rightwing lecture circuit, declared Republicans were now living in the ‘most foreboding times in my 59 years.’ David Frum worried, ‘Will the Obama coalition now forever outvote and pillage the makers of American wealth? Many conservative commentators say yes.’ A hysterical Quin Hillyer at American Spectator warned that Republican ‘failures on an epic scale’ left conservatives at the mercy of ‘a newly empowered, radical president—bent on leftist “revenge” and untethered by the Constitution.’ Commentary’s John Podhoretz excoriated the ‘contentlessness of the Romney campaign’ (proof of ‘the vacuity of the centre-right’) yet also conceded that ‘the Republican Party is dominated by a set of ideas and issues that are catnip to its own base but repellent to everyone else.’ Another Commentary contributor, Jonathan Tobin, judged that the dual blows of Romney’s defeat and renewed ‘civil war between establishment types and Tea Partiers’ had rendered Republican opposition to Obama ‘useless’. [9] Newt Gingrich, finally, sermonized that too many conservatives ‘underestimate the scale of the threat we face’ as cultural and demographic trends ‘turn America into a national version of Chicago or California’.

Unless Republicans profoundly and deeply rethink their assumptions and study what the Democrats have been doing the future could become very bleak and the Clinton–Obama majority could become as dominant as the Roosevelt majority was from 1932 to 1968 and from 1930 to 1994 in the House of Representatives. [10]

Such prognostics from the Right seemingly provide confirmation for the thesis—advanced by prominent Democratic political analysts like Ruy Teixeira, John Halpin and John Judis—that 2008 was the end of the age of Reagan and the advent of a new Democratic majority. In the lexicon of critical realignment theory, 2012, despite the slippage in the Obama vote, was the classic ‘confirming election’. Certainly exit-poll data, strengthened by belief in demographic determinism, supports a circumstantial case for Gingrich’s worst fears, but midterm elections, such as the huge Republican congressional backlash of 2010, have a nasty habit of controverting presidential-year paradigms. Paradoxically, as contested elections and swing states have become fewer, the turbulence on the margins has increased, and political forecasting becomes an adventure into what the quants like to call ‘volatility space’. Indeed broad patterns in contemporary American politics are like the canals on Mars in 1900: every expert claims to see them, but no one can completely prove that they exist.

My own fuzzy image of the next four years resembles another of Gingrich’s prolific scenarios: unrelenting conflict between Democratic power in the White House and Senate, and stubborn Republican control over the House and a majority of state legislatures and governors’ mansions. (The Supreme Court is the institutional wild card.) ‘We are in a period’, Gingrich writes understatedly, ‘where there could be an alliance between 30 Republican Governors and a Republican us House of Representatives which could highlight better solutions and also highlight the failures of the federal government.’ [11]

Since 2010, an alternative America has been taking shape in states where Tea Party Republicans dominate the legislatures. As always, legislators in Kansas or Alabama are eager to skirmish with the Federal government and even the Supreme Court over gay marriage, abortion, immigration and assault rifles. But this time around they are even more focused on implementing locally what was defeated nationally. Since the rise of the Tea Party wing, powerful if ad hoc coalitions of Republican leaders and local capitalists, closely linked to ultra-conservative policy centres with billionaire patrons, have turned toward the radical restructuring of their state economies. First of all, Republican governors sucker-punched Democrats by unleashing attacks on public and private collective bargaining with the obvious aim of transforming the industrial Midwest into a right-to-work utopia like the South. In Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, angry teachers and steelworkers repeatedly confronted Tea Party supporters in capitol skirmishes that reached epic scale in the ‘Battle of Madison’. Meanwhile Republican governors in several traditional right-to-work states (Kansas, Nebraska and Louisiana), who don’t have powerful unions to break up, are pushing for the abolition of (progressive) state income taxes with the aims of shrinking the public sector and shifting the tax burden from high-income constituents to poorer people, via sales taxes.

These legislative offensives, and the designs for Tea Party government that they are putting into action, have been compared to the tax revolts of the late 1970s. But in vehemence and intent, they more closely resemble ‘Massive Resistance’ in the 1950s and 1960s when the White South, led by its governors and legislators in coordination with its congressional delegations, defied all the rules of coalition-building, compromise and obedience to the Washington establishment in order to wage all-out war against black political empowerment. (The Tea Party reincarnates much of the bigotry and intransigence of the White Citizens’ Councils, albeit with the moral salves of a few reactionary black celebrities like Herman Cain, Clarence Thomas and Tim Scott.) Further ‘Southernization’ in both the geographical and ideological sense, however, is beginning to terrify many Old School Republicans. Although they created and nursed the monstrosity, they are now coming to dread the electoral implications of a party of aging but militant white people dominated by Misean ultras, extreme Christians, assault-rifle owners and diehard Confederates.

The domestic extremism of the gop stands even more naked after so much of the party’s foreign-policy and military agenda has been effectively co-opted by Obama. Romney was the first Republican candidate in memory who could offer no compelling vision of ‘clear and present dangers’ that Democrats were failing to confront. The attempt by Republican leaders, especially a bitter John McCain, to spin the Benghazi debacle into a ‘second Watergate’ only betrayed a lack of traction against a President who better fits the ‘Jack Ryan’ role of Tom Clancy’s special-ops president than any of his Republican competition. Obama’s enthusiasm for stealth war and murder by remote control, as well as his bipartisan appointments in the Pentagon and his ceaseless cultivation of the counter-insurgency lobby, have made his war-mongering flank almost invulnerable to traditional Republican attack, even with Netanyahu as Romney’s shadow running mate. The Republican campaign, bereft of red scares or Osama Bin Laden, was left to stand or fall with the Ryan budget, the tax cuts for billionaires, and Romney’s expertise in corporate takeovers.

The current choice before the gop is stark. Can the party, led by a Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal or Chris Christie, reinvent itself from the top down in order to encompass the minimal share of American ethnic and racial diversity that henceforth will be required to occupy the White House? Or will it entrench itself further behind a maximalist programme that celebrates the philosophy of the bunker, of massive resistance to providing New Deal safety nets for future generations of colour? If growth returns and some share of increasing productivity feeds through to wages (the wager that underlies Obama’s willingness to gamble the most valuable heirlooms of the New Deal), neither option matters: the Republicans will probably go the way of the Whigs. On the other hand, if the economy stagnates or declines, then the ‘brutish future’ that Thomas Edsall predicts, where the ‘two major parties are enmeshed in a death struggle to protect the benefits and goods that flow to their respective bases’, is already foreshadowed by the recent political class struggles in Red America. [12]

Powerful sectional forces, as evidenced by the bitter split over the relief bill for Hurricane Sandy, will also influence which of these scenarios will come true. Currently most of the embattled gop leadership comes from the Great Lakes or border South, while the intransigent majority in the House hails either from Dixie or the Big Empty (low-population Plains and Western states). The nightmare of Northern conservatives is the transformation of a strong national party into a twenty-first-century version of the Confederate States of America. The struggle over Republican identity, moreover, has a profound bearing on the functional relationships between the gop and the private sector. Tea Party Republicans and fiscal extremists (like their forgotten ancestors, the Taft wing of the 1940s and 1950s) lean toward the Club for Growth, even economic nationalism, not the Business Round Table or the G8. [13] If their power increases and the gop’s centre of gravity continues to move deeper South, corporate boardrooms will undoubtedly reconsider their investment portfolios in a party that clearly measures second best to the Democrats in the management of the global and long-term interests of American capitalism.

The notes which follow sift through the exit polls, opinion pages and academic studies to better understand both the current Republican agony in presidential politics and counterpart Democratic frustrations in Congress and state politics. The us Federal political system is such an odd and complex orrery, with major electoral planets often moving in opposite directions or even around different ideological suns, that it is essential to consider not only the presidential race, but also briefly the elections for the House, the battles for control of state governments, and the new factional alignments inside the parties. [14] Trends that already seem destiny at the presidential level may take years to arrive in the mail at the congressional or state level. Electoral ‘data’, moreover, is always subject to multiple interpretations. Looking at social forces via poll sampling is like viewing Mars through a Victorian telescope: over-interpretation is almost inevitable. [15]

Dog on the roof

On election eve, Romney joked with reporters at the Boston Convention Center that as soon as he moved into the White House he would buy another Weimaraner. (No one had the nerve to ask where the new puppy would ride in the Presidential limousine.) Unlike John McCain in 2008, he was relaxed and supremely confident. His chief pollster, Neil Newhouse, had earlier assured him that the win was in the bag: all of the proprietary Republican surveys as well as the Gallup Poll were predicting low voter turnout for crucial Obama demographics and a strong rally toward Romney of independents in swing states like Ohio. The Romney war room, moreover, possessed an ‘unprecedented advantage’: the hugely expensive it system known as ‘Project Orca’ which, with the help of 34,000 Republican volunteers, would monitor voting in real time to ensure ‘hyper-accuracy’ in the allocation of campaign resources to increase turnout in crucial precincts in swing states. [16] It was signature Romney: Bain Capital was feared and renowned for employing massive data analysis before closing deals or sending companies to the breaking yard.

Before polls closed in Iowa, the champagne had already been uncorked and the Romney people were in a jolly mood. Officials at Logan International Airport told the Boston Globe that ‘their private aviation tarmac was crammed with corporate jets that ferried in campaign supporters en route to the convention centre.’ A fireworks company had been hired to ignite the sky over Boston harbour with pyrotechnics as soon as Romney claimed victory. One reporter had already caught a glimpse of the transition website ready to go online. [17] Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, who like other reporters had to pay $1,000 to attend the gala, found the regal atmosphere and intense security an unsettling image of what a Romney presidency would be like. ‘The gleaming convention centre built with hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, is on a peninsula in the Boston harbour that was turned into an election-night fortress, with helicopters overhead, metal barricades and authorities searching vehicles. Only a few gawkers crossed the bridge from downtown to stand outside.’ [18]

In the end the fireworks went off in Chicago, not Boston. Orca had crashed early in the day, and Democratic turnout in critical states rose toward 2008 levels. Obama’s support was not evincing the ‘motivation gap’ that underpinned Republican assumptions about the election. Indeed some trends were simply outside of the Romney campaign’s conceptual universe: for instance, the unprecedented urban turnout in Ohio that increased African-American participation from 11 per cent of the electorate in 2008 to 15 per cent in 2012. (Romney also performed worse than George Bush in 2004 in most of Ohio’s mainly white counties.) [19] Except for North Carolina, where the Democratic Party has become internally dysfunctional, the President ultimately retained the rest of his 2008 swing states. [20]

Romney, victory speech in hand, was reported to be ‘shell-shocked’ by his rapidly mounting losses so early on election eve, as were the expensive consultants who had assured him that First Tuesday’s voters would be older and whiter. (‘After Ohio went for Mr Obama’, cbs reported from Boston, ‘it was over, but senior advisers say no one could process it.’)