The gold dome of the New Hampshire state house was shining in the dark when the Tea Party Express rolled down Main Street Concord tonight. Whoever organised the end of this tour knew what they were doing — unsurprisingly as this grassroots movement is attended at every stage by well-paid professional consultants. Yeah and verily, the dome was like a beacon unto freedom, the main street was prosperous and well-ordered, and the granite-staters gathered in the statehouse garden looked hardy and appropriately resilient.
There were about three hundred of them, most in light tops and trousers, mildly amused at the out-of-town reporters freezing their bajinkos off in the chill New England air. There was the usual redwhiteandbluiana, the same stalls — the Constitution explained,”‘Tales of Heroes in Iraq”, weirder conspiratorial tracts, ceremonial lanterns (Paul Revere), and of course the yellow “Dont Tread On Me” flag, with its coiled snake below. And the same people leading it off, the plain grassroots folks with suspiciously slick public speaking skills, coming off the bus: “y’all put on a good showing New Hampshire!” Cheers. “Who loves our constitution?” More cheers.
Another day, another Tea Party? This one is the Tea Party Express, an outfit separate to the Tea Party Patriots, and with whom they are engaged in a vicious war. Both are themselves umbrella groups for the thousands of Tea Party organisations that have sprung up in the last two years. As these midterm elections enter their final 24 hours, the Tea Parties are their great moment before the gold dome. Whatever happens tomorrow, and afterward, and however it’s been done, they’ve set the agenda for the election. No, not agenda. They’ve set the mood, temperature, background, mise en scene.
Their sense of certainty and identity is unwavering, set in granite, while that of liberals and progressives comes and goes like a nimbus. Tonight’s rally starts with the usual rah-rah, “why are we here, because we’re taking our country back, I’m taking my country back how bout you.”
This is Amy Kremer, the former former air hostess from Atlanta, Georgia, a large woman who became politically active after quitting work for health reasons and, as she told Ed Pilkington of The Guardian, “becoming tremendously depressed… I need to fill a void.” Eighteen months after pulling together a proto Tea Party on Twitter — and more than a year after it acquired the professional political leadership of Sal Russo, ex-Reagan hack, she’s still leading it. Political training and rally flying hours have polished her to a fine sheen — she can get a crowd roaring, with one quick punch after the other.
“We can’t spend our way out of debt — it’s not rocket science!”
“Harry Reid is our number one target. After tomorrow we’ll have another number one target.”
Rollicking stuff but she’s just the taster. She’s followed by Debbie Lee — “mother of the first NavySEAL to be killed in Iraq!” Cheer, of sorts. Debbie’s got the chain store clothes and blonde girl-mullet hair, a sing-songy voice — and, it becomes clear, not a whit of shame about enrolling her dead son in a political campaign. She starts, as usual, thanking vets here for their service, our freedoms etc, and then segues into the story of how her son died. Behind her, another son is holding up a large poster photo of her dead boy Mark, turning it in a slow semi-circle so all the crowd can see.
“He was carrying the unit heavy gun … he stood up to give covering fire while his buddy was put in a medivac copter. When they all came back to base, he was asked to go out again. He didn’t hesitate…”
On and on it goes, as her lilt becomes stagey and overdramatised, as if the material needed it. The emotions fight it out. It’s a story of a brave and selfless death, being told with all the false notes of a Franklin mint ad voice-over. “He did this for us for all of us, as many other have done, for our freedoms.” But of course he didn’t, even if he thought he did. He died a meaningless death, thrown away on lies and political arse-covering.
Does Debbie’s way of telling it — that poster lifts almost out of the boy’s hands, seems to float in the night air — recuperate meaning from grief? Maybe, but she doesn’t give any indication that she ever doubted that it was meaningful — or that there would be nothing wrong in speaking of it beside a poster that said “Flat Tax Now”, enrolling her son’s extinction in one side of a debate on fiscal policy.
After that a short wiry woman, Diana Nagy, gives a spiel that effectively enrols every dead soldier in the Tea Party movement — “my grandparents went to the Pacific and prayed over their dead brother’s ocean grave knowing that this sort of thing is what we are fighting for!” Cheers. She finishes with a song “my mom and I wrote”, Where Freedom Flies. Nother rah-rah speech then Lloyd Marcus, a black, slightly fruity guy in leather comes out. “Wooooooooooooh I’m not an African-American! I’m an American!” Cheers.
On it went and so could we, if we chose, marvelling at this exuberant movement, pumped and primped by secret money, but drawing on a substantial reserve of real energy, and strong ideas. The rally had a gleeful air about “firing Pelosi” and “giving Harry Reid his pink slip” (ie termination notice) “and I’m going to go to the lingerie store to do it” said one woman, some bizarre twist on the “man up Harry Reid” charge fired at him earlier by Sharron Angle (slip/slip, ysee).
They probably will. But they were also similarly triumphant about sacking Barney Frank, the liberal congressional head kicker from Massachusetts, and there’s no chance that will happen, and so one wonders at what base level of rationality these people are thinking.
Indeed, though the Republicans will most likely take the House, and knock off Reid and other high profile senators like Russ Feingold, Wednesday will most likely see some right-wing soul searching, as it becomes clear that they’ve allowed the Democrats to retain control of the Senate. The Delaware vacancy that could have been taken by Republican Mike Castle will return to the Democrats, Alaska will go either to newly-minted independent Lisa Murkowski or even the hapless Democrat Scott McAdam, and the GOP may even fall short in Colorado and Kentucky, where Rand Paul’s supporters’ thuggish antics may have scared away some moderates.
Such a result would create a comprehensive gridlock in politics, but also make it impossible for a two-house Republican congress to launch a full war against Obama — a war which will in any case include inquiries, subpoenas and everything all the way to attempts at impeachment. It will allow Obama, should he find the skills to do it, to run against the House — “they’re the ones screwing up the recovery” — and use the Senate to protect existing legislation. The Tea Party will be left with the knowledge that they have given Obama a reprieve — and will also be tasked with trying to control a group of politicians who will have no choice but to play the political game, to get things done — compromise, earmarks, negotiation, all the bad things.
Having drawn on their energy, the Republican Party is now trying to dismantle them, with Karl Rove being openly contemptuous — and he and others fearful that they may somehow get Sarah Palin nominated, a woman whom the Republicans believe will deliver them the sort of results gained by Goldwater and McGovern in decades past, a collapse to the base 35% of support, a disaster.
Beneath the floodlit gold dome, this party has an expectant air — but it may be something that many Tea Partiers, these ageing Reagan revolutionaries, back here in their 60s and 70s to get the feel once again of morning in America, look back on as the high point, the shining apex before the fall. Yet at the same time who could deny that theirs is the party of the stronger part, that the energy and hope is with them? Who could deny that especially after Saturday’s ‘Sanity’ rally, that ultimate confession of liberal self-doubt, effacement, exhaustion of ideas and purpose?
Should the polls prove true, Obama will lose around 55 seats in the House, and seven to eight in the Senate. Off no more than a gut feeling that some gap may have been closed in the past week, and that anger does not always make it all the way to the polling station, I will predict a loss of 45 in the House, and six in the Senate, and an unknowable capacity to regroup. And I will draw up a chair, and the popcorn, and watch the Republicans enter into full-scale civil war. But for all that, I wish that it was my party that was the one convening on hallowed battlegrounds, to dance and sing beneath the gold dome, of victory tomorrow.