By Stanley Kutler
We are witnessing, we are told, a groundswell of anger from a spontaneous, grass-roots movement against the president, Congress, Democrats, socialists (are commies extinct?), the debt, higher taxes, the “takeover” of the health system, and on and on. But the tea party appears to be as bothered by the policies of Franklin Roosevelt as those of Barack Obama.
Disenchantment on the left, meanwhile, is muted and hardly reported. Liberals have been disappointed by President Obama’s initial appointments, his compromised health measure, financial system regulation that offered no remedies to prevent a recurrence of our financial distress, retention of Bush-era policies on detainees and failure to shut down Guantanamo.
The media repeatedly invoke grass roots and other code words to describe the tea party. Tell a lie often enough and it is believed. Our media wizards must realize that with the revelations of high-powered funding and the involvement of Republican operatives, the characterization of the tea party as a spontaneous, ground-up movement does not fit; nagging facts nevertheless must bow to pursuing the “colorful.”
Why take note of a bald candidate—the elected leader of Delaware’s most populous county, one of only 30 counties in the nation with a AAA bond rating—when he is opposed by an attractive woman who bragged that she did not go to Yale, who has gained media stardom with off-the-wall notions on masturbation, gay adoptions and the teaching of evolution, and who was forced by her own past remarks to deny that she was ever a witch? Making the inevitable cheap shot, Christine O’Donnell has criticized the Supreme Court for all of society’s ills since 1954, but when challenged she could not cite a case that fit her objections. She is the poster child for our talk-radio (and TV) culture.
Political strategists with big-money allies have conducted a campaign on the incredible plank of anger, and they have recruited candidates to reflect that anger. The anger is choreographed, directed from above and largely aimed at Obama.
Why was there no comparable anger when President George W. Bush and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson asked Congress for the Troubled Assets Relief Program—the big bank bailouts, which, we were told, were necessary to preserve our financial system? Few “angry” folks then said let the banks fail. Do tea party candidates assault the dubious mortgages that banks created—and the even more dubious securities they then sold? Have any of them attacked the false affidavits of foreclosures? They invoke opposition to government bailouts as if on cue, but words such as greed, fraud and ill-begotten salaries and bonuses seem to have eluded them. They obsess over the nation’s debt, but when do they acknowledge that the Bush-Cheney administration unapologetically turned a national surplus into a national debt?
The political operatives and financial angels of this angry movement have capitalized on that most fragile and forgettable of human traits: memory. Memories and backbones fail us in harsh times. The political strategists and their financiers who conjured up the tea party are clever. But will electoral success bring us smaller government, freedom from foreign-held debt or new jobs for Americans?
David and Charles Koch are the most prominent bankrollers of the tea party. They fit the mold of late 19th century “robber barons” and reject government oversight, corporate taxes and social welfare programs—except welfare that benefits private enterprise. They want no government regulation of the pollution caused by their oil refineries. Simple political bribes served their predecessors, whereas the Kochs and others provide bountiful campaign contributions—our legalized bribery—under the constitutional cover of free speech.
The Koch brothers have created the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which has funded tea party rallies. The Kochs’ own agenda neatly fits that of its recruits.
Bloomberg Businessweek reported a poll of tea party respondents almost unanimously favoring smaller government and lower taxes. Six in 10 advocate government based on Christian principles. More than any other voters, they want to repeal legislation enacted by the president and the Democrat-controlled Congress. They are perfectly matched with the Republican Party, its operatives and the likes of the Kochs.
Many of the candidates in the current midterm elections faithfully mirror the ideas and programs (or is it anti-programs?) of this movement. These fierce and angry candidates offer a perfect made-for-media package. They posture with outlandish positions, and the media dutifully channel their notions as if they deserve serious consideration.
Nevada’s Republican senatorial candidate, Sharron Angle, who at one time prided herself for being so very far out there, now refuses to speak to the media, knowing full well that she nevertheless has their full attention.
But by far the most egregious candidate of all is West Virginia’s Republican senatorial candidate. The state’s populace is poor by most national standards. Why then a strong movement for a candidate who openly advocates views contrary to the needs of such people?
Candidate John Raese earned his wealth, he said, the old-fashioned way—he inherited it. With his family, he has extensive, nonunion coal-mining holdings, river barge companies and 25 radio stations in the state. He has been a losing candidate for various state offices, defeated by opponents including Sens. Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller. He proudly identifies with the tea party folk: “I was a tea partyer before the tea party existed,” he said. He called movement “the greatest thing that has happened to this country. I am so encouraged by the anger in this country. A lot of us are angry.” Sarah Palin loves this man.
Make no mistake: Raese passionately hates the president and the Democratic Congress. To spread his message, he displays a photograph of his opponent, Gov. Joe Manchin, sitting next to Obama. (The photograph actually was shot at Robert Byrd’s funeral.) His campaign is filled with anti-Obama rhetoric. “Why do I hate Obamacare?” he asked at one rally. “It is a socialist program which will not work. It hasn’t worked anywhere in the world. It will be repealed.” But “Obamacare” is only part of a bigger picture for him.
Raese’s favorite villain is Franklin D. Roosevelt. He particularly assails the “unconstitutional” minimum wage law, first enacted in 1938. “The minimum wage is something that FDR put in place a long time ago during the Great Depression,” he told ABC News. “I don’t think it worked then. It didn’t solve any problems then and it hasn’t solved any problems in 50 years.” Raese simply favors abolishing the “unconstitutional” law.
Seventy years ago, Republican Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone wrote the opinion in U.S. v. Darby, unanimously sustaining the constitutionality of the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938), abolishing child labor and establishing a minimum wage of 40 cents an hour. That law sought the “elimination of labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standards of living necessary for health, efficiency and well being of workers.” The decision neatly fit the court’s view that the national government possessed such power and responsibility.
Raese’s family probably groaned under the burden of having to raise wages in its mines. He is a crude advocate for generations of right-wing grumblings about the transformation of the American nation in the 1930s and 1940s. That undercurrent of alienation now has re-emerged as the well-financed, well-directed tea party, challenging the very legitimacy of so much which has sustained us. Abolish minimum wages, repeal government-run health care programs and privatize Social Security? Of course. The rants are portrayed in the tea partyers’ favorite banner: “Take Back Our County.” However we characterize the current movement, it is clear that truth is the first casualty and the constitutional order is the first prisoner of their war.
Stanley Kutler is the author of “The Wars of Watergate” and other writings.
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