So, just the other day, there was U. S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, predicting on TV that more and more people will accept the Obama health care reform as time goes on. Maybe, I thought, but probably not. Too many people are too upset about federal spending and the fiscal future of the country in general to accept any major new federal program, whatever its purported virtues.
These people are frightened and likely to stay that way. They don’t necessarily understand the entire health care reform package – most people don’t, actually – and they might not understand specifically that the country has seen no real household income growth in 30-some years. They might not understand that the stock market has seen zero growth in the past decade or that the first decade of the 21st Century showed zero net job growth. They might not understand that the American share of the world’s GNP has slid from 50 per cent at the midpoint of the 20th Century to 25 per cent at century’s end. What they do know, though, is that we have 10 per cent unemployment with no end in sight. They do understand that federal spending to save the banks and to keep state and local government at least moderately functional as tax revenues have dried up has not directly touched their lives in any way they find tangible.
The people most upset over this are the Tea Party people. I had a Tea Party guy call into my program the other day on Albany’s WGDJ Talk 1300 AM. He was disturbed that the Tea Partiers get no respect, that so many people seem hostile to them when the Tea Partiers are only trying to sound the alarm on national fiscal collapse.
Part of that, I explained to him, is because of some bad behavior on the part of Tea Party people at various demonstrations in Washington and at those congressional “town hall” meetings on health care reform last summer. Most of it, though, is that Tea Party viewpoints just don’t mirror those of most people in this country. Recent polling by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute illustrates that. When you examine the composition of the Tea Party movement you discover that:
74 percent are Republicans or independent voters leaning Republican;
16 percent are Democrats or independent voters leaning Democratic;
5 percent are solidly independent;
45 percent are men;
55 percent are women;
88 percent are white;
77 percent voted for Sen. John McCain in 2008;
15 percent voted for President Barack Obama.
Only 13 percent of American voters say they are part of the Tea Party movement. By a 28 to 23 percent margin, American voters have a favorable opinion of the Tea Party, with 49 percent saying that they don’t know enough about the group to form an opinion. While 70 percent of all voters are “somewhat dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with the way things are going in America today, 92 percent of Tea Party members are dissatisfied. Government does too many things better left to businesses and individuals, according to 54 percent of all voters, while 42 percent say government is not doing enough. Tea Party members say by a margin on 83 to 15 per cent that government is doing too much. The Tea Partiers are wild about Sarah Palin. Most people view her with considerably less enthusiasm. A total of 19 percent of American voters trust government to do the right thing “almost all of the time” or “most of the time,” compared to only 4 percent of Tea Party members.
Does this mean that the Tea Partiers are wrong? Not necessarily. There’s nothing extreme or illogical about fretting over the country’s dismal economic and fiscal situation. The problem seems to be that too many of the Tea Party people, whatever the justice of their cause, are new to politics and tend to express their legitimate fears through displays of rage rather than through rational, persuasive arguments.
To a certain extent, that’s an American tradition of long standing. Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He has done some research on bad behavior on the part not of ordinary citizens terrified of the country coming apart but of members of the U. S. Congress. Forget about Texas Congressman Randy Neugebauer’s”baby killer” taunt to the Democrats in the House of Representatives the other day. Forget about South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson’s call of ”you lie!” during a speech by President Obama last fall. Political debate on the part of lawmakers in this democracy has always been nasty. A few examples:
In 1798, in the midst of a dispute on the House floor, Rep. Roger Griswold, a Federalist from Connecticut, impugned Rep. Matthew Lyon’s Revolutionary War record. Lyon, a Republican from Vermont, spit in Griswold’s face. Two weeks later, Griswold hit Lyon with a cane, and Lyon responded by attacking Griswold with a pair of fire tongs.
In 1837, Rep. Balie Peyton of Tennessee took offense at testimony by former federal bank director Reuben M. Whitney before a committee of investigation. Payton shouted at Whitney, “You shan’t say a word while you are in this room; if you do I will put you to death.”
President John Quincy Adams kept a diary. After leaving the White House, he enjoyed a long and illustrious career in the U.S. House of Representatives. He described in his diary an incident in 1845 in which Rep. Edward J. Black, a Democrat from Georgia, “crossed over from his seat . . . and, coming within the bar behind [Ohio Whig Rep. Joshua R.] Giddings as he was speaking, made a pass at the back of his head with a cane.” Rep. William H. Hammett, a Democrat from Mississippi, “threw his arms round [Black] and bore him off as he would a woman from a fire.”
In 1856, furious about attacks against pro-slavery Sen. Andrew Butler, a Democrat from South Carolina, by Republican abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, Butler’s relative, Rep. Preston Brooks, another South Carolina Democrat, went on to the Senate floor and beat Sumner senseless with his walking cane. When other senators tried to aid Sumner, they were stopped by Rep. Laurence Keitt, another South Carolina Democrat, who brandished a pistol to keep them away. Sumner was badly injured and unable to return to the Senate for more than three years. Brooks survived an expulsion vote in the House, resigned his seat. South Carolina voters rewarded him by reelected him to that same seat that November.
In 1902, in the Senate chamber, Sen. John McLaurin, a Democrat, accused his fellow South Carolinian, Sen. Benjamin “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, another Democrat, of telling a “willful, malicious and deliberate lie.” Tillman responded by punching McLaurin in the face.
In 1964, segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond, Republican of South Carolina, positioned himself outside a committee room in an effort to dissuade his arriving colleagues from forming a quorum to consider the nomination of LeRoy Collins to head the Community Relations Service under the new Civil Rights Act. When pro-civil rights Sen. Ralph Yarborough, a Texas Democrat, showed up, the two ended up in a wrestling match.
In 1970,: Sen. George McGovern, Democrat of South Dakota and fervently opposed to the Vietnam War, took to the Senate floor where, to the gasps of colleagues and people in the galleries, he declared: “This chamber reeks of blood.”
In 1985, After a disputed 1984 election in Indiana’s 8th Congressional District resulted in a party-line House vote to seat Democrat Frank McCloskey, Rep. Bob McEwen, Republican of Ohio, lashed out on the floor at Speaker Tip O’Neill, Democrat of Massachusetts. McEwen said,”You know how to win votes the old-fashioned way; you steal them.” Newt Gingrich, Georgia Republican, then characterized the Democrats as a “leadership of thugs.” Republicans marched en masse in protest out of the House chamber, the first time that had happened in 95 years.
In 2003, in protest over the lack of notice about a markup of a pension bill, Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee left the hearing room. The one Democrat left behind to make sure nothing untoward happened, Rep. Pete Stark of California, was told to “shut up” by Republican Rep. Scott McInnis of Colorado. Stark’s response: “You think you’re big enough to make me, you little wimp? Come on. Come over here and make me, I dare you. You little fruitcake.”
Then, in 2004: Vice President Dick Cheney, appearing in the Senate chamber in his capacity as president of the Senate, became involved in a discussion with Sen. Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, about Cheney’s ties to his old firm, Halliburton. The conversation ended with Cheney telling Leahy to “[bleep] yourself.”
In the context of all that history, the Tea Party people aren’t really all that bad. Their problem is that they haven’t yet learned that in order to convince people it’s a good idea to refrain from offending them with hostile and bellicose behavior. The antiwar protestors of the Vietnam era never really learned that lesson, which was why it took them a full decade to persuade Americans that the war had never been that good an idea from the start. If the Tea Partiers really want to get beyond that 13 per cent and move into the mainstream they should learn from that example.