Thomas Frank attended the Tea Party rally in Washington, D.C. last Saturday, on the eve of the House vote to approve the health care bill. Former Bush speechwriter David Frum is calling the bill a Waterloo — for the Republicans.
A huge part of the blame for today’s disaster attaches to conservatives and Republicans ourselves.
At the beginning of this process we made a strategic decision: unlike, say, Democrats in 2001 when President Bush proposed his first tax cut, we would make no deal with the administration. No negotiations, no compromise, nothing. We were going for all the marbles. This would be Obama’s Waterloo – just as healthcare was Clinton’s in 1994.
Only, the hardliners overlooked a few key facts: Obama was elected with 53% of the vote, not Clinton’s 42%. The liberal block within the Democratic congressional caucus is bigger and stronger than it was in 1993-94. And of course the Democrats also remember their history, and also remember the consequences of their 1994 failure.
This time, when we went for all the marbles, we ended with none.
I do not fully understand the mechanics by which the great events of recent years—namely, the self-destruction of Wall Street and the presidency of Barack Obama—triggered a mania for Revolutionary War costumes and the high-flown cadences of Jeffersonian English. But that is nevertheless what has happened. Not only do the protesters wave the flags of that era, but they know the quotes as well, shouting out favorite passages from the works of the Founders as they came up in the various speeches, giving the whole thing the air of a TV game show.
In reality, of course, they aren’t protesters at all—they are “freedom fighters,” as two of Saturday’s speakers insisted. And maybe they are something even more exalted than that. Darla Dawald, an organizer for the national protest group ResistNet, called on those in the crowd “who know that this nation was built on Christian principles . . . to stand here and declare that this bill be killed in the name of the Lord.”
It is tempting to understand the tea party movement as a distant relative of the lowest form of televangelism, with its preposterous moral certainty, its weird faith in markets, its constant profiteering, and, of course, its gullible audiences.
Frum seems to agree, adding:
I’ve been on a soapbox for months now about the harm that our overheated talk is doing to us. Yes it mobilizes supporters – but by mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead. The real leaders are on TV and radio, and they have very different imperatives from people in government. Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination. When Rush Limbaugh said that he wanted President Obama to fail, he was intelligently explaining his own interests. What he omitted to say – but what is equally true – is that he also wants Republicans to fail. If Republicans succeed – if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office – Rush’s listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.
So today’s defeat for free-market economics and Republican values is a huge win for the conservative entertainment industry.
UPDATE: Frum’s essay triggered a firestorm of conservative criticism, and he abruptly left the American Enterprise Institute shortly afterwards.