by Barry Edelson


Go Ahead, Have a Party

And Good Luck with that Governing Thing


"Now you're a politician."


— Former Gov. John J. McKay (Melvyn Douglas)
to his son Bill McKay (Robert Redford)
after his unlikely election to the U.S. Senate
in "The Candidate"


Congratulations to the Tea Party (whoever you are) on your success in the Republican primaries last week. The more victories you can take credit for, the more conservative incumbents you knock off for being insufficiently devoted to your agenda (whatever that is), and the more candidates you elect to office, the sooner your so-called movement will begin its inevitable disintegration.

In the fervor of youth and the intoxication of victory, you are simply incapable of grasping that most elemental lesson of politics: it's easy to criticize, but hard to govern. You know those lobbyists and "special interests" that your outsider candidates have been trashing from one end of the country to the other? They're also called voters. It will be more than a little interesting to see what Senator Rand Paul will do (if he gets that far) when a parade of constituents and lobbyists from his home state of Kentucky beats a well-trodden path through his Washington office. Sure, he can stick to his principles and oppose earmarks and all other manner of government spending, including things that might actually help the people he represents in Congress. Like his famous libertarian father, the Congressman from Texas, he can become the Senate's favorite iconoclast. And just like his ineffectual father, he can rant and rave and run for president and get lots of attention for a host of radical ideas that stand no chance of ever being enacted as legislation. Vote against subsidies for tobacco farmers? It's the right thing to do. By the way, lots of luck on your re-election campaign.

The real world is replete with example of politicians who discovered that running for office is a little different from being in charge. When Ed Koch first became mayor of New York City in the late 1970s, he was confronted with the problem of dredging the harbor. Fresh from four terms in Congress, where he supported environmental laws that would have prevented New York's toxic mud from being disturbed, he quickly realized that without deep-water channels for ships, the city's commercial future was doomed. So, the environmentalist suddenly became a realist, and Koch had no choice but to support dredging. Rank hypocrisy? Abandonment of principle? Perhaps. It's also called governing.

The problem is that elections are usually framed as great moral struggles — good versus evil, right against wrong, the weak against the powerful. But day-to-day problems of government, like most of the challenges of living, don't often present such a clear choice between opposites. The options are more ethical than moral, not right against wrong but right against right: environmental protection versus economic development, corporate profits and strong capital markets versus worker's rights and consumer protections, and so on. There are precious few instances in which the solution to a problem is evident and widely supported. Every decision is fraught with political peril, and leads to unintended consequences.

In the 1980s, many boards of education on Long Island were under assault from the so-called Tax-PAC movement, led by rabid opponents of higher taxes who bear a striking resemblance to present-day Tea Partiers. In a few cases, Tax-PACers actually won majorities on boards. Once elected, however, they turned into — can you believe it? — board members. That's right, once in office they were no longer insurgents and rabble-rousers but the elected representatives of the school district, and were forced to confront, like Mayor Koch, a host of complex issues that were impervious to their chants and slogans. Elected officials can cling to the "maverick" label and make themselves faintly ridiculous, like a certain former presidential candidate, or they can act like the elected members of government that they are. For the most part, these previously anti-establishment school board members recognized the seriousness of their new situations, stepped up to the plate and did their jobs responsibly — much to the chagrin of their former supporters, who thought they were voting for something else entirely.

No doubt some in the Tea Party imagine that if they manage to elect enough wild-eyed enthusiasts to higher office, that the vaunted revolution will not be far behind. A lone wolf who is preternaturally disinclined to compromise won't accomplish anything as a member of an assembly, but a lot of them may achieve critical mass and bring us to the promised land (wherever that is). The problem with that strategy is two-fold. First, a large gathering of lone wolves constitutes a pack, and a pack tends to move together and think alike, and a pack mentality is precisely what the anti-government crowd is trying to break up. Second, a Congress actually comprising 535 obstreperous renegades would make the current crop of cowards and blowhards look like the Founding Fathers.

It may have been little noticed this week that one of the four Republican Senators who voted in favor of the financial reform bill was Scott Brown. That's right, only two days after the ousting of Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania, the humiliation of Mitch McConnell's favored crony in Kentucky, and the frightening of Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas, the darling of last year's Tea Party broke ranks and joined the Democrats to pass one of President Obama's major legislative efforts. It may also have been little noticed that Senator Brown represents Massachusetts, and that he has to face the voters there again in 2012. And next time he's going to have to run on an actual record.

So good luck to the Tea Party and all of your favored candidates in November. May you get everything you wish for.

May 22, 2010


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