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Tim Rutten: They drank the tea

'Tea party' members have accused House Speaker John Boehner and his lieutenants of preparing to sell them out to the White House in 'a cowardly act of treason against coming generations.'

May 11, 2011|Tim Rutten

If congressional negotiators fail to resolve their impasse over the federal debt ceiling, we may recall this moment in history as one of the nation's worst since the morning Custer awoke thinking it might be amusing to go and annoy Sitting Bull.

Ensuring the U.S. government's full faith and credit is a matter of such consequence to the global financial system that everything else concerning the budget seems a sideshow. Still, some of the latter are intriguing, and none more so than the bizarre little costume pageant played out by leaders of the "tea party" movement and some of their congressional admirers in Washington on Monday.

The group scheduled a news conference to coincide with an address by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to the Economic Club of New York. The GOP leader told the gathering of Wall Street insiders that his party would not vote to raise the debt ceiling unless the Democrats agreed to spending cuts of $2 trillion or more. Boehner said that "allowing America to default would be irresponsible" but that failure to "reform the budget process" would be worse.

That's pretty strong stuff, but it wasn't good enough for the tea partyers back in Washington, who accused Boehner and his lieutenants of preparing to sell them out to the White House in "a cowardly act of treason against coming generations." The Rev. William Temple, chairman of the tea party's Founding Fathers, who appeared — as apparently is his custom — in a tri-cornered hat and full Colonial-era regalia, sneered at Boehner as "a wimpy RINO," (Republican In Name Only) and derided him as "our tearful House speaker." Temple said the tea party would give lawmakers "something to really cry about in 2012" by turning the debt ceiling vote into a litmus test: "If you vote to raise the debt ceiling, you get a '0' for the year from the tea party. If you don't vote to raise the debt ceiling, you get a '100' and you're a hero."

That's fiery, and worthy of fancy dress, but no sooner had Temple drawn his line in the sand than he and the other factional leaders in attendance began pointing to ways around it. All involved extracting concessions from the Democrats on what the tea party spokesmen consider "core value issues."

Part of the conventional wisdom about the tea party has been the notion that it's a populist movement overwhelmingly concerned with economic rather than social issues. As we're discovering, that's not the case.

What was particularly interesting about Monday's news conference was that Temple and other tea party leaders indicated they might "possibly forgive Boehner and the House Republicans a small bump in the debt limit" if the GOP limits the role of women in combat and reinstates the "don't ask, don't tell" policy with regard to gays and lesbians serving in the military. Temple put his case this way:

"When the Pentagon's own studies show that military effeminization [sic] may have an extremely costly impact on recruiting and retention, when Islamists have shown their willingness to sexually brutalize American female reporters, why would John Boehner's House Republicans be caving to political correctness? Why would House Republicans who know better be fostering inappropriate attractions in the intimacy of tents, bunks, barracks, platoons, subs, tanks, convoys, cockpits, latrines, showers, toilets and locker rooms when we are fighting wars in three Muslim nations?"

Other tea party spokesmen made similar points, and former Iowa gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats insisted that the connection of gay rights and economic policy was legitimate.

"It's a ripple effect," he told the Talkingpointsmemo website. "When you start going away from core value issues, the ripple effect leads right to economic issues as well. If you tell me where you're at, say, on the sanctity of marriage or on some core value issues, I'll tell you where you're at on economic policy."

As it turns out, for all its ostensible novelty, the tea party movement is simply a fresh manifestation of a familiar American political pathology, what philosopher J.M. Cameron called "syndrome thinking": an insistence on holding bundles of unexamined beliefs — say an insistence on liberty's primacy and an antipathy to equal rights for gays — linked by something other than logic.

As usual, the problem with pouring old wine from new skins is the bitterness of the vintage.

timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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