Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Licensing Crazy: The Tea Party Debate

I was irritated before I even turned this on and saw Michele Bachmann’s stare (clearly, someone told her as a child that she had hypnotic powers and she’s been working on them ever since).  Do we really need a ‘Tea Party Debate’ sponsored by CNN?  Here the media is operating under the assumption that both political parties need to be more moderate, but they’re fanning the flames of anti-tax, anti-government extremism by holding a debate designed to bring out the nuttiness amongst an already loony group of people.  But it’s not as though in the first several debates candidates weren’t bowing and scraping obsequiously before the Tea Party caucus in the form of its silent and slightly worm-eaten figurehead, Ronald Reagan, or its slightly more lively scion in South Carolina, Jim Demint. 

But no one ever asks the Democrats to an Organised Labour Debate, or an Environmentalism Debate, in an effort to expand our understanding of candidates’ positions on critical issues or to subject them to pressure from their bases.  In fact, there’s no reason why the Republican candidates shouldn’t be asked to participate in debates that would force them to admit that not everyone in the United States believes that destroying our public lands to put off energy reform, privatising education, dismantling our social welfare system and deregulating the industries that led us into the recession are good things.  That is the definite down-side of Republicans holding approximately two thousand debates between now and next November while there’s silence in the Democratic Party: all this insanity becomes increasingly mainstream and goes increasingly unchallenged, forcing the political conversation to the right.

The Democratic Party should organise a series of public conversations between labour leaders, environmentalists, educators and campaigners for political reform in an effort to remind people of the alternatives and to make public the fact that there is discontent with the Republican agenda.  Because we’ve learned that we can’t rely on the President to set anything resembling a progressive agenda.

But on to the debate itself...moderated by CNN’s spectacularly un-inspiring Wolf Blitzer.

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It’s starting to feel familiar now.  All the same characters are in place, with their roles well-established:

Mitt Romney manages to smile winningly and sound reasonable while saying the most absurd things.  Rick Perry is the crowd favourite, shouting the sweet nothings (all the more potent because of the Texan accent) that are music to the ears of right-wing zealots.  Michele Bachmann just howls whenever anyone mentions government.  Herman Cain shouts 9-9-9 to anyone who will listen (I wonder if he’s mis-dialling and wondering why emergency services aren’t showing up to whisk him out of this den of insanity?).  Ron Paul flails and recites Austrian economists and uses every chance he gets to say we need to end our foreign wars.  Jon Huntsman tries his hardest not to sound reasonable.  And The Newt and Tim Pawlenty try to remind everyone that they’re on-stage.

And boy, oh boy, are these people courageous!  How do I know that? I hear you ask.  Well, because they told me!  By their own admission, we’re looking at the most courageous group of Americans ever to grace a stage.  They’re truth-tellers!  And humble, too.

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They start with social security, which all of them have attacked at some point.  However, none of them went quite so far as to call it a Ponzi Scheme, as Rick Perry did.  Romney calls social security “an essential program”.  The others pile on him, calling it un-Constitutional.  This business of labelling anything you don’t like un-Constitutional is really getting old.  But they follow up with another line of attack, with Perry saying that “For people to stand up and support what they did in the ‘30s is not appropriate for America”.    Presumably he’s referring to the decision to actually do something about the Great Depression instead of letting it take its toll on the workforce?

Ron Paul seconds this line of argument, saying, “What I would like to do is to allow all the young people to get out of social security and go on their own!”  Huge applause.  Paul is an interesting character.  He is the only major political figure in this country to honestly address the ill that our foreign policy does.  But his social policy is utterly amoral, leaving, as it does, every decision to the market.  He gets raucous applause from the Tea Party audience when he starts talking about cutting government departments left and right.  He doesn’t get to finish his list, but suffice to say that our country would cease to function as a republic if Paul had his way.

He couches this rather ruthless approach as one which embraces liberty.  When they move onto healthcare, we get more of this.  Blitzer, clearly hoping to get Paul on record saying something crazy, gives him a scenario in which a young, uninsured man suffers a terrible accident.  Who, he asked, will pay for his care?  “That’s what freedom is all about”, Paul replies, “taking your own risk.  This whole idea that you have to take care of everybody...”  he shakes his head and dismay and gets more applause.  Blitzer comes back: “Are you saying that society should just let him die?”  Cue applause from the audience, and calls of “Yeah!” and “Yes!”  Paul shuffles and stutters, his radar telling him that he’s on thin ice.  Churches and neighbours (who are also taxpayers, I’d note) should do it.  And then he takes advantage of Blitzer looking rather shell-shocked, and starts off yammering about inflation...

Romney’s solution is, of course, a market-oriented system.  We need, he suggests, to make people feel the costs, the pain.  Now, they’re too insulated and don’t have enough sense of what their care costs.  Right.  Michele Bachmann comes really un-glued whenever “Obamacare” comes up.  She starts screaming about how she’s the only one who can stop “Obamacare” because of post-dated checks somewhere.  Is this why she wants to abolish the US Postal Service?  To stop them delivering those checks?

Cain talks healthcare, but for some reason the camera splits and we see Ron Paul who appears to be...zipping his trousers?  Buttoning his jacket below the camera?  I’m not sure...  But it’s weird. 

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The Newt has news for us: “President Obama scares [the American people] every single day”.  But the friendly amphibian does endorse a full-employment economy.  Now someone needs to explain to him that Reaganesque economics can’t get you there... 

Then, bizarrely, he starts talking about how cutting waste will solve all of our problems.  Perry agrees.  Romney criticises this view as unrealistic.

Speaking of employment, Blitzer now tells us that we’re going to focus exclusively on jobs, because everyone from the President on down has said that this needs to be our sole focus (about the only thing they can agree on).  This is kind of silly.  Employment depends on addressing lots of other things: education, health and well-being, inequality, community safety, and so on.  The Portrait of California is a good example of this, and illustrates the linkage between different spheres that we tend to treat as distinct.

Bachmann says we need to address the root of the problem: “The principle has to change.  For years politicians have run on the idea that government is gonna buy people more stuff and that the federal government would be taking care of people’s prescription drugs, their retirement, their healthcare their housing their food.  We’re the everybody else that is paying for the freight for all of these things.   That’s got to change...we have to be an ownership society where personal responsibility, individual responsibility, once again becomes the animating American principle”.  People lap this up, without stopping to think that the “every body else” who pays for the services in question are also the recipients of the benefits.  It’s not as though there is this great mass of anonymous America out there who pays a spine-crushingly-heavy tax burden while not sending their children to school, going to the doctor, driving on roads, visiting National Parks, tuning into NPR (even if only to curse it for its left-wing bias), breathing at least semi-clean air and eating at least semi-safe food.

Huntsman talks about the need to see this as a great American tragedy, and urges us to take a compassionate approach, and work on “cleaning out corporate welfare and subsidies”. 

This doesn’t go down so well with the rest of the gang.  Rick Perry, to cheers, says that we need to “free up” Wall Street.  Astounding!  Unbelievably (well, not really), Blitzer doesn’t call him on this.  Do these people really not understand why our economy went into free-fall, that it happened before Barack Obama became President, and that giving license to the wealthy and powerful to operate unchecked is a recipe for disaster? 

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Bachmann’s got some nice alliteration going on: “Wilderness of Washington”.  Then she starts talking about money being earned by American countries overseas.  Not sure whether that was a slip of the tongue and she meant companies, or whether she’s talking about revenues we’re taking in from Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. 

They take a question from a viewer: “Out of every dollar I earn how much do you think I deserve to keep?”  Why not think about what goes into the money you get?

These people are shamelessly playing to their audience...they know what will get this bunch of bloodthirsty, selfish yahoos going, and they give it to ‘em.  Every line that talks about destroying things, cutting things, repealing things, gets huge applause.  It’s a little sick.

And if you follow what has become the orthodox Republican line of thought, it leads to some pretty disturbing places.  What, in the end, is the point of living an associational life, with laws and institutions, a flag, a country, etc, if every effort we make, every attempt we undertake, to help each other, gets called into question in this nasty, mean-spirited, immoral way?

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Blitzer mentions Perry’s comment about Bernanke being tried for treason: applause from crowd.  Whenever he hears applause for saying that kind of thing, Perry must be torn: “Do I walk back an ill-informed, idiotic statement that is only going to play well with about 15% of the electorate, or do I pander to the audience here and reiterate my claim?”

Ron Paul cracks me up.  He’ll make a solid critique of the artificiality of our economy, the unsoundness of our financial system, but then, instead of coming to the conclusion that we should base our economy on something real—like the actual labour and services of men and women—he suggests that we base it on the entirely fictitious and arbitrary value of a chunk of shiny rock.

Herman Cain gives us his two cents.  He will create, he tells us, a Regulatory Reduction Commission, charged (this is the bit he didn’t tell us) with making sure that we repeat the mistakes that led to the recession as speedily as possible.  It will focus, with laser-like intensity, on institutions like the EPA (charged with keeping our air clean and safe).  He will put “people who have been abused by the EPA” in charge of the Commission.  Yes, that’s right, “People who have been abused by the EPA”.  Presumably, egregious polluters who try to re-write the law so that they can dump toxins or pump particles into our water and air.  Toxins and pollutants which even from a purely economic standpoint are a huge drain on our resources in the form of healthcare costs.  So greedy, irresponsible, unsafe and cold-hearted polluters, who have suffered so much under the heartless EPA regime, will have their moment of revenge...on a sound agency and on the public it protects, the community groups who try to keep streets and air and waterways clean.  Gutter politics, quite literally, at its finest.

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But Bachmann feels that all of this was a little too substantive.  Dropping in the polls, she does the obvious thing: attack Rick Perry.  She goes back to the HPV “scandal”, in which by executive order the state of Texas required female students (with a parental opt-out) to be vaccinated against HPV, a cause of cervical cancer.  She makes it sound like Perry is suggesting that 12-year-olds are engaging in sexual activity and need to be vaccinated accordingly, with a dangerous vaccine (actually proven to be exceptionally safe).  But of course medically, this vaccine is effective only if given prior to the patients engaging in sexual activity.  So it makes sense for it to be given young.

This is being blown hugely out of proportion, and clearly Bachmann thinks it might be just the thing to sink Rick Perry.  She ranged on and on about it, dementedly suggesting that “to have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat wrong”.  By the time she was through, she made it sound as though GOVERNMENT was being injected by stealth into these children, and that they’d wind up with un-constitutional particles, over-taxed debris, bureaucratic liquids floating around in their bloodstream.

Santorum, desperate to get in, realising that he is hovering just on the wrong side of irrelevance, jumps in as well.  But Bachmann hasn’t played her best card yet.  Perry, it seems, had got a donation from the company charged with doing the vaccinating!  She basically accuses him outright of corruption.  Perry hasn’t been able to put a foot-wrong all night with this audience, but now there’s a dangerous hush in the room.  Perry responds.  The contribution from the drug company was a paltry $5,000, when he’d raised $30 million.  “If you’re saying I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended”.  Suggesting, as I read it, that he’s for sale, but for substantially more...  Bachmann isn’t finished: “I’m offended for all the little girls who didn’t have a choice.

Perry pretends to be repentant, closing by saying, “Texas is, day in and day out, a place that protects life”.  He hates cancer, remember?  The loophole in the “life” argument?  His gleeful use of the death penalty...

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On to immigration and border security, one of those obligatory topics.  Republicans get particularly incensed about this topic.  They need to assimilate! we hear.  “Texas Ranger Recon teams!” Perry blurts.  “I’m the son of an Italian immigrant!” Santorum declares.  Inexplicably, this gets wild applause.  I briefly wonder whether the audience are real people, or if they’re programmed to clap at anything.

Then this all takes a bizarre twist because, prompted by a question from twitter, they start talking about how to attract Latino voters.  Predictably, they do this in a way that suggests that there are no Latino voters in the room.  And maybe there aren’t.  I certainly wouldn’t be caught dead around people like them...

Santorum has an odd take:”You attract Latino voters by talking as Newt has for many years about having English as the official language of this country”.  English-Only legislation would “bar government employees from providing non-English language assistance and services”, marking a further exclusionary turn in our policy towards immigrants.  It’s odd how Santorum and The Newt keep referring to each other.  I wonder if it’s a strategy? 

Romney wants a fence (presumably so he can sit on it).  He also says the GOP will win Latino votes by “telling Latinos what they know in their heart.  They or their ancestors did not come here for a handout.  If they came for a handout they’d be voting for democrats...”  Suggesting that any Latino who votes for Democrats is leeching off of our society.  And that we somehow have to prove that we're deserving.  Classy.  Also ignores the fact that some states—California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico—were once part of Mexico, and that many of their citizens are the descendants of people who were relentlessly displaced, attacked and discriminated against. I find this all very offensive...but what's new?

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Jon Huntsman clearly thinks he’s not getting enough face-time with Blitzer.  So he gets tough!  Which is disconcerting.  He calls Perry a traitor (semi-jokingly), and says it would take all night to cover all the positions that Romney’s taken on various issues.  No one else, the audience included, seems to know how to take this, so they ignore him...

Wow, almost finished and on to foreign policy.  The Newt says we need to “deal with” North Korea and Iran.  You can tell this man has an itchy finger.  He refers to “sinister developments” in Egypt and Turkey (democracy, perhaps?). 

Then Ron Paul steps up.  “We’re under great threat”, he says, “because we occupy so many countries.  We’re in 130 countries and we have 900 bases around the world.  What would we do if another country did to us, say China, what we do to all those countries over there?” 

Santorum  snaps, flies off the handle, and lunges for the jugular, calling Paul “irresponsible” to claim that we are responsible for 9/11.  He bizarrely accuses him of “parroting Osama bin Laden”, and insists that “we were not attacked because of our actions, we were attacked because as Newt talked about we have a civilisation that is antithetical to the civilisation of the jihadists and they want to kill us because of who we are and what we stand for.  And we stand for American exceptionalism, we stand for freedom and opportunity for everyone around the world”.  Santorum, like many in both parties, is totally unwilling to understand cause-and-effect: we invade Iraq, bomb their infrastructure into the ground, and they’re unhappy with us; we overthrow Iran’s government, provide Saddam Hussein with poison gas to use on their military, shoot down their passenger aircraft, and they’re unhappy with us; we support Israeli imperialism, back their inhumane treatment of Palestinians, and Palestinians are unhappy with us; etc.

But Paul is not backing down from the illogical, unhinged assault that he’s under.  “As long as this country follows [Santorum’s] idea, we’re going to be under a lot of danger.  This whole idea that the whole Muselim world is responsible for this and that they’re attacking us because we’re free and prosperous, that is just not true”.  He says what Obama and the Democrats were never willing to say: that Osama bin Laden himself said he attacked the U.S. because of our bases in Saudi Arabia, our failure to support the cause of stateless and beleaguered Palestinians.  The audience, normally well-disposed towards Paul, is booing him now.  But he presses on.  “We had been bombing and killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis for ten years.  Would you be annoyed?  If you’re not annoyed there’s some problem”. 

But this was too much logic for the hand-picked crowd of bloodthirsty Tea Partiers, and Blitzer called the game.  

I needed some fresh air after that madness, and on stepping outside, heard an elderly Englishman say to his wife, pointing at a pub, "It's been there since 1789.  That's the year America was invented".

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