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Commentary :: Politics
The Teabagger Strategy: Obama and the Right
01 Feb 2010
A year into President Barack Obama’s first term, it has become depressingly clear that he is, as Jay Leno put it, "our greatest Republican President ever." From warrantless wiretapping to bank bailouts to endless war, on issue after issue his policies have proven identical to those of George W. Bush. And unlike Bush, Obama’s position at the head of the Democratic Party, along with his immense talent as a salesman, allows him to advance the Republican agenda with almost no opposition from self-described liberals. But this unexpected windfall also presents the Republicans, or rather their corporate paymasters, with a dilemma. How do they get Obama reelected while pretending to oppose him?
Ordinarily, of course, this wouldn't be a problem. An incumbent President with Obama's skills could be expected to coast easily to reelection regardless of the competition, as Bill Clinton did in 1996. Today however, the deepening economic depression complicates matters for the establishment. By 2012, voters will have endured five-plus years of economic misery and flagrantly broken promises. Even Obama will have a hard time getting reelected without some help from the "other side."

Solving both halves of their problem is essential for the Republicans. They have nobody of national prominence who possesses anything resembling Obama's ability to simultaneously promise hope, deliver the exact opposite, and get away with it. A John McCain victory in the last election would have been a disaster for the ruling class, and they face a similar difficulty in 2012. A Black President of Obama's charisma, who is also willing to completely ignore moral principles in the service of corporate profits, is not something to be discarded just because the economy is collapsing. Likewise, the false conflict between Democrats and Republicans that has kept the US public mesmerized for decades is an indispensable tool of social control, so the GOP can't be seen to just roll over and play dead. Their only option is to mount an "attack" that looks ferocious on the surface but has no ability to derail Obama’s reelection bid.

This is where Sarah Palin comes in. Palin, along with other unelectable far-right nut jobs like Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly, have dominated right-wing media coverage since the election, at the expense of all 40 Republican Senators, and all the Republican governors except Mark Sanford. Palin and company's brand of faux-populist, crypto-racist demagoguery, which carefully avoids any economically important issues, is now what passes for the Republican platform. By contrast, any mainstream Republican politician who has a chance of toppling Obama, and quite a few who don’t, have been as close to invisible as their positions allow. Mainstream political commentators have expressed surprise at the "disarray" the Republicans find themselves in. They point to Arlen Specter, a "moderate" Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, who was forced to defect to the Democrats to avoid a loss in the upcoming Republican primary election, something virtually unheard of for an incumbent Senator. These commentators are missing the point. Disarray is exactly what the corporate establishment needs from the Republicans right now, and Specter was a potential threat to Obama in 2012. Also, he is now a useful counterweight within the Democratic Party to more liberal Senators like Al Franken.

The so-called Tea Party movement fits neatly into this framework. A motley collection of right-wing, working-class white people, the movement takes its name from the Boston Tea Party. The "teabaggers," as they are known, have been in the media recently for organizing medium-sized protests in Washington, DC and disrupting last summer's town hall meetings on health care. Their positions include the claim that Obama was born in Africa and is thus ineligible to be President, a demand for the government to refrain from providing health care, and a stand against immigration. While the teabaggers are presented in the corporate media as a spontaneous expression of working class anger, even a cursory look at their origins and funding reveals that this is far from the case. According to Jane Hamsher’s teabagger timeline on, the first protest to be labeled a "Tea Party" was organized by Ron Paul supporters as a fund raiser in December 2007. Since then however, the theme has been appropriated by more mainstream Republicans for their own purposes. By late February 2008 nation-wide Tea Party protests were being spearheaded by staffers from Freedomworks, a foundation chaired by former Republican Congressman and House Majority Leader Dick Armey, not exactly the first person that leaps to mind when you think of grassroots community organizing. If Armey's involvement isn't enough, consider that media mogul Rupert Murdoch has given the teabaggers widespread media coverage via his Fox News Network, something else that tends not to happen to genuine grassroots movements.

Once one realizes that the teabaggers are a giant astroturf operation, their usefulness to Obama and the ruling establishment becomes clearer. For one thing, they draw support away from Ron Paul and the "libertarians," who, however misguided and destructive their ideas are, are a genuine threat to the established order. The teabaggers are also, with help from Fox News and friends, dragging the mainstream debate further to the right. This means that liberals confronted with Obama's support for torture, war and global warming, who might otherwise consider growing a spine, are pressured to continue supporting the administration as the lesser of two evils.

But the teabaggers’ greatest gift to the ruling class is their potential to divide the anti-Obama vote by adding a third evil to the mix. This was pointed out by the Wall Street Journal in a mid-December poll, which found that a hypothetical Tea Party had higher favorability ratings than either the Republicans or Democrats. Since then, a Tea Party Convention has been announced for early February at which Palin will be the keynote speaker.

Other speakers include Republican Representative Michelle Bachmann and Republican Representative Marsha Blackburn. If you're noticing a pattern here, you're not alone. A bunch of Republican politicians are creating a third party that can only split the right-wing vote, instead of working within the Republican party to advance views that are already popular on the right. This behavior would ordinarily be considered political suicide, but for a party whose major donors (the defense, insurance, and banking industries among others) are already getting everything they want from the "opposition," it makes perfect sense.

We don’t have to wait until 2012, though, to see the effects of the teabagger strategy on national policy. Having the Republicans tacitly on his side has let Obama employ the classic political strategy of getting the bad news out of the way early, without having to worry unduly about his approval ratings (which in any case are well north of 50%). Considering the sheer volume of bad news, he's made good time. In less than a year Obama scuttled a global climate deal, engineered a massive giveaway to the health insurance industry, locked in a policy of bailing out Wall Street whenever it collapses, increased US involvement in genocidal wars and confirmed the Bush administration's policies concerning torture, illegal arrests and government secrecy. About the only thing left is immigration "reform," and at his current pace that should be wrapped up by fall of this year.

Here it's interesting to note that immigration, the teabaggers' signature issue, was saved until they had established themselves organizationally and in the media. That will make them a better excuse for the package of increased repression and employer giveaways that will inevitably emerge from the "reform" battle. Amnesty for undocumented immigrants will be torpedoed in much the same way the pubic option was during the health care debate, except with the teabaggers taking most of the blame instead of Joe Lieberman.

With immigration out of the way the White House will be able to switch over to campaign mode, taking a harder rhetorical line with the Republicans, throwing a few minor bones to the liberals to bring them back in line and otherwise shoring up a slowly dwindling base of support. By Election Day 2012, Obama should be in position to sweep all 50 states against the GOP and Tea Party candidates and claim a "mandate" based on forty-something percent of the popular vote.

Noam Chomsky has warned in recent interviews of the possibility of an independent right-wing populist movement reminiscent of the Nazis in Weimar Germany. A right-wing populist movement under the control of the ruling elite could be even more dangerous. As we resist the US march toward outright corporate fascism, the teabaggers will be worth keeping an eye on.

Further reading:

This work is in the public domain.
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unwashed huns from the midwest
16 Feb 2010
My campaign also appealed to
the poor... who were too stupid to understand what I'm saying, so I held
up pretty pictures and then I gave out candy bars to appeal to their
most base insticts.