Time for Tea in the USA?

Published in Exepose.

On November 2 Americans will head to the polls and vote in a series of congressional, state and local elections. These midterm elections are so-called because they fall half way through a President’s four year term. Therefore, one name that will definitely not be on any ballot paper is Barack Obama. Such is the continuing media and public fascination with the man that the elections are being considered a referendum on the President’s first two years in office. I have to conclude, having spent eight weeks working on a Senate race this summer, that American elections and these ones in particular are about so much more than the incumbent of the Oval Office.

If Republicans take control of the House of Representatives (which looks likely) and the Senate (which looks possible) it will be seen as a major setback for Obama. Among former Presidents however this is not unprecedented: Clinton and Reagan, for example, both got clobbered in their first midterm before convincingly winning a second term. Democratic defeat will probably have deeper consequences for the Republicans than for the President’s party.

The initial process by which parties select their candidate for the November election threw up a number of Republican candidates which make George W. Bush seem remarkably liberal. These so-called ‘Tea Party’ candidates claim to be running on purely fiscal issues, arguing against the bloated state and claiming Obama’s stimulus package, healthcare reform and Wall Street bailout have only worsened the deficit.

These arguments are superficially persuasive, not dissimilar to our coalition government’s recently outlined cost cutting measures. This is particularly appealing to Americans, whose founding myth and ideology continues to be a small state with low taxation and little regulation. In New Hampshire where I was based, for example, there is literally no VAT or income tax, and it is politically toxic even for Democrats to suggest there should be. Hence the Tea Party label, harking back to the night in 1773 when disgruntled colonists destroyed a shipload of overly taxed yet perfectly drinkable tea, thereby hastening revolutionary war and independence.

Unfortunately, Tea Party Republicans have used this economic message as a cover for a platform of increasingly provocative, shocking and often absurd policy stands, most of which have very little to do with fiscal policy. Righteous right-wing vitriol was hurled at plans to build a mosque at Ground Zero – notwithstanding that the plan was, in fact, to construct a Muslim community centre a few blocks away. Dozens of Tea Party candidates meanwhile supported an Arizonan law that allowed policemen to arrest and question suspected immigrants purely on the basis of their skin colour, in a state where 30% of the population is Hispanic. Along the way prominent candidates and media personalities have accused President Obama of not being born in America, being a closet Muslim, and having “deep-seated hatred of white people”.

On social issues, Tea Party candidates have also taken the whole Republican Party in a rightward lurch. Republicans no longer debate abortion rights per se but discuss whether it is legitimate in cases of rape, incest, and the potential death of the mother. The rights of gay people to enter into civil unions, adopt children and serve in the military are passionately argued against, and stem cell research is frequently opposed on religious grounds.

Of course, many Tea Party candidates, and ordinary Americans, can have legitimate and often heartfelt reasons for holding many of the above views. Indeed, Obama’s biggest gaffe in the presidential campaign was to describe small-town, downtrodden Americans as “clinging to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them”. Americans don’t like being talked down to and Obama’s occasional impulse to speak like the liberal professor he once was do not help the perception of him as an out-of-touch, liberal elitist. However, Tea Party candidates are being utterly disingenuous when they claim that their movement is based solely on fiscal issues, whilst using social and often racial views as wedge issues in their campaigns.

This contradiction was especially apparent in New Hampshire. The state motto is ‘live free or die’, and this sentiment extends far beyond low taxation: New Hampshire residents are not required to wear seat belts or motorbike helmets, and gun ownership is common and staunchly protected. But, by the same token, the majority of the state believes in abortion rights, and was one of the first states to legally permit gay marriage. Nationally many incumbent Democrats are electorally dead and buried for supporting Obama’s expensive legislative programme. Embracing the Tea Party’s social and sometimes racial agenda however, is proving an electoral liability for Republican candidates in New Hampshire, given the state’s libertarian, live-and-let-live philosophy.

Of course, a few Republicans struggling in New Hampshire this year will not be much of a national, let alone international story. As Republicans decide who among them will challenge Barack Obama for the presidency in 2012, however, it could have massive ramifications over the next two years.

This process starts with a caucus in Iowa followed by the nation’s first primary election in New Hampshire. You only have to walk into a cafe or diner in the state to see the tsunami-like effect that the presidential primary leaves every four years. Photos of restauranteurs shaking hands with Gore, Bush, McCain and usually at least one of the Clintons adorn the walls. The leader of the free world seems to be chosen in the town halls, bars, and house parties of this small state, which prides itself above all else on its conception and enjoyment of freedom.

So it will be interesting to see how a prospective Tea Party candidate, such as Sarah Palin, can persuade enough moderate New Hampshire voters to subscribe to an agenda most consider fairly radical, and which Palin herself calls “revolutionary”. I wasn’t quite in New Hampshire long enough to witness the state’s famous New England fall, when the leaves turn red. I certainly hope I don’t see the state’s electoral map turn a similar shade on November 2. When, in little more than a year, the state chooses its preferred Republican candidate, I don’t honestly believe New Hampshire, or ultimately America, will yet be able to stomach the taste of tea.

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