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Belmont Club

The Washington Monument

April 18th, 2010 - 5:08 pm

Mike Allen’s account* of the grievance meeting between the White House Press Corps and Secretary Robert Gibbs feels like watching a once famous profession in a sad state of decline.  At a 75 minute meeting the White House Correspondents Association begged for crumbs. They complained the administration was going direct to the Internet on everything; as in staff photographers posting Presidential pictures while the Press Corps was denied photo opportunities; of news releases being posted after the business day was closed (“full lid”); of cutbacks in travel pools on Air Force One at a time when news organizations couldn’t afford to charter their own planes. The most pathetic demand of all was for Internet access in situations when they had to file. How important could they be if the pool reporting wasn’t worth a couple of dozen megabytes of uploads? That’s less than a few minute’s action on World of Warcraft.

Where one is on the totem is everything in Washington. The idea of hierarchy permeates every situation. Behavior is a question of knowing your place; when to say ‘thank you’ and never speaking out of turn.  If you can’t understand the rules you’re a rube. Because of the default presumption that you are at Court; it follows that beneath every courteous speech ultimately you want something from the king or the duke or the duchess. And this is where Bill Clinton has got it subtly wrong.

The former President argued that political discourse had gotten so strident that certain individuals on the right have crossed the line between criticizing government officials and “demonizing them.” Things now remind him of the days preceding the Oklahoma City bombing when Clinton’s unpopular actions were unappreciated by an America lucky to have him.

CLINTON: I worry about these threats against the president and the Congress. … I just think we all have to be careful. We ought to remember after Oklahoma City. We learned something about the difference in disagreement and demonization.

TAPPER: You said that this time reminds you of — of that time. Politically does this year remind you of 1994?

CLINTON: A little bit. We passed the bill which reversed trickledown economics by one vote. Close like the healthcare bill. And it led to an enormous flowering of the economy in America. And that bill was responsible for, take is more than 90 percent of the weight of the balanced budget. But people didn’t realize its benefits.

I think the same thing is happening now with the healthcare bill. Where people are still reading into it all manner of dark things. And they haven’t felt the benefits of it yet. But America is a different country now. We are culturally a different country. We are more diverse. We’re more communitarian. That is, we understand we have to solve a lot of these problems together.

The point Bill Clinton is missing is that the danger doesn’t come from right wing ‘anger.’ The anger is just a byproduct. The voices he hears from the Tea Party crowds aren’t threats; they’re warnings. The real peril is coming from somewhere else: the demographic decline in industrial world working populations, the increasing cost of energy and the international movement in the factors of production. A whole generation of failed policy from both parties is coming to a head and it probably means that the welfare state, the European Union and by consequence the Chinese economy are heading for a cliff.

What’s driving the Tea Parties isn’t amorphous hate. It is concrete fear: worry that pensions have been devalued; medical care will become unaffordable; taxes are too high and jobs are gone, never to return. And a look around the world shows there’s no place to hide. When the wave hits it will be global. In the UK membership in political parties is at near historic lows.  In America Congress’s popularity is lower than whales**t. The Eurozone is cracking up under its weight of debt. First Greece, now Portugal are being ripped off the cliff face like a zipper — and all the climbers are roped together. Japan is like a kamikaze sub heading for the depths and tapping out a sayonara. Russia was history long ago. And China, when it has used up its flowering moment, will face the consequences of its one-child policy. And Middle Eastern potentates,  stuck in the same old, same old, are warning about a Summer War.  The Tea Parties aren’t about putting some country club Republican in the White House, though Bill can’t help hearing it like that.

The cheese-paring scene at the White House Press Corps is just as indicative of the coming storm as the Tea Parties. It is yet one more sign that the old institutions are making plans for a future that isn’t there; moving trillions of dollars in projected revenues around a five year plan like Hitler’s fictive armies were moved around a map in 1945. When you hear Gordon Brown describe the billions he’s going to spend to save the world and heal the planet; when you read news about the proposed legislation on “cap and trade”– the issue isn’t the “right wing hate” but where’s the money going to come from? The most telling fact about Bill Clinton’s speech is that 2010 reminds him of 1994. If he — or the political establishment — can’t tell the difference between the decades, that’s your problem right there.

But the average Joe can. His pocketbook talks to him as loud as his cell phone; he has to live in a world where five bucks is a lot of money.  So the man in the street can see things that are invisible from Olympian Washington. Robert McCartney of the Washington Post found to his surprise that once he tuned into the frequency that he could hear it too.

I went to the “tea party” rally at the Washington Monument on Thursday to check out just how reactionary and potentially violent the movement truly was.

Answer: Not very. …

I found that I agreed heartily with the tea partiers on what is perhaps their single biggest concern: that America’s swelling government debt seriously threatens our long-term prosperity.

A lot of people live in 1994. Time to switch the channels.

But  perhaps the most unremarked thing about the Tea Parties is that they’re not calling for a repeal of the Constitution but for its enforcement. They are the complete opposite of what Clinton thinks they are; an affirmation, not a call to create “a different country” that Clinton congratulates himself in attaining.  And that may be an advantage. If the world descends into a prolonged and tectonic crisis, the one clear advantage that America will have going into it is a clear and widely shared sense of the legitimacy of its foundational principles. That may not seem like much, but if a crisis impends a widely shared sense of legitimacy will be among the most precious things in a planet gone awry.

Yet politicians can’t see it. For perfectly natural reasons they fall into the habit of thinking everyone is a supplicant. It’s an understandable outcome of living in a world where someone is constantly asking them for something: photo opportunities, access to news releases, seats on Air Force One or Internet access. Nothing throws them for a loop more than something that doesn’t want anything they can bestow. The Tea Partiers already know the establishment is bankrupt. They don’t want to be the next Botox Queen, the next guest on Oprah or the man with Internet access on Air Force One; they only want their freedom and a chance to meet the crisis with common sense, if that’s not asking too much. It’s a novel idea which will take a little time for politicians to understand. But give them time and eventually someone will take credit for it. Tolkien understood both how power worked and its blindness.

For he is very wise, and weighs all things to a nicety in the scales of his malice. But the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts. Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it, that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it. If we seek this, we shall put him out of reckoning.

*I misattributed this to Jake Tapper. This was a grave error on my part for which I sincerely apologize. I’m sorry Jake, sorry Mike.


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