Those of us who might have expected Paul's purist followers to abandon him in droves have been disappointed; Paul is now the clear favorite to win in November. Ha, ha, you thought we actually gave a shit about spending, joke's on you. That's because the Tea Party doesn't really care about issues — it's about something deep down and psychological, something that can't be answered by political compromise or fundamental changes in policy. At root, the Tea Party is nothing more than a them-versus-us thing. They know who they are, and they know who we are ("radical leftists" is the term they prefer), and they're coming for us on Election Day, no matter what we do — and, it would seem, no matter what their own leaders like Rand Paul do.
In the Tea Party narrative, victory at the polls means a new American revolution, one that will "take our country back" from everyone they disapprove of. But what they don't realize is, there's a catch: This is America, and we have an entrenched oligarchical system in place that insulates us all from any meaningful political change. The Tea Party today is being pitched in the media as this great threat to the GOP; in reality, the Tea Party is the GOP. What few elements of the movement aren't yet under the control of the Republican Party soon will be, and even if a few genuine Tea Party candidates sneak through, it's only a matter of time before the uprising as a whole gets castrated, just like every grass-roots movement does in this country. Its leaders will be bought off and sucked into the two-party bureaucracy, where its platform will be whittled down until the only things left are those that the GOP's campaign contributors want anyway: top-bracket tax breaks, free trade and financial deregulation.
The rest of it — the sweeping cuts to federal spending, the clampdown on bailouts, the rollback of Roe v. Wade — will die on the vine as one Tea Party leader after another gets seduced by the Republican Party and retrained for the revolutionary cause of voting down taxes for Goldman Sachs executives. It's all on display here in Kentucky, the unofficial capital of the Tea Party movement, where, ha, ha, the joke turns out to be on them: Rand Paul, their hero, is a fake.
The original Tea Party was launched by a real opponent of the political establishment — Rand Paul's father, Ron, whose grass-roots rallies for his 2008 presidential run were called by that name. The elder Paul will object to this characterization, but what he represents is something of a sacred role in American culture: the principled crackpot. He's a libertarian, but he means it. Sure, he takes typical, if exaggerated, Republican stances against taxes and regulation, but he also opposes federal drug laws ("The War on Drugs is totally out of control" and "All drugs should be decriminalized"), Bush's interventionist wars in the Middle East ("We cannot spread our greatness and our goodness through the barrel of a gun") and the Patriot Act; he even called for legalized prostitution and online gambling.
Paul had a surprisingly good showing as a fringe candidate in 2008, and he may run again, but he'll never get any further than the million primary votes he got last time for one simple reason, which happens to be the same reason many campaign-trail reporters like me liked him: He's honest. An anti- war, pro-legalization Republican won't ever play in Peoria, which is why in 2008 Paul's supporters were literally outside the tent at most GOP events, their candidate pissed on by a party hierarchy that preferred Wall Street-friendly phonies like Mitt Romney and John McCain. Paul returned the favor, blasting both parties as indistinguishable "Republicrats" in his presciently titled book, The Revolution. The pre-Obama "Tea Parties" were therefore peopled by young anti-war types and libertarian intellectuals who were as turned off by George W. Bush and Karl Rove as they were by liberals and Democrats.
The failure of the Republican Party to invite the elder Paul into the tent of power did not mean, however, that it didn't see the utility of borrowing his insurgent rhetoric and parts of his platform for Tea Party 2.0. This second-generation Tea Party came into being a month after Barack Obama moved into the Oval Office, when CNBC windbag Rick Santelli went on the air to denounce one of Obama's bailout programs and called for "tea parties" to protest. The impetus for Santelli's rant wasn't the billions in taxpayer money being spent to prop up the bad mortgage debts and unsecured derivatives losses of irresponsible investors like Goldman Sachs and AIG — massive government bailouts supported, incidentally, by Sarah Palin and many other prominent Republicans. No, what had Santelli all worked up was Obama's "Homeowner Affordability and Stability Plan," a $75 billion program less than a hundredth the size of all the bank bailouts. This was one of the few bailout programs designed to directly benefit individual victims of the financial crisis; the money went to homeowners, many of whom were minorities, who were close to foreclosure. While the big bank bailouts may have been incomprehensible to ordinary voters, here was something that Middle America had no problem grasping: The financial crisis was caused by those lazy minorities next door who bought houses they couldn't afford — and now the government was going to bail them out.
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