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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Freak-Show Politics

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At first, the decision by Wisconsin Democratic Congressman David Obey to retire after 41 years in Washington may have appeared surprising.

Obey had already raised more than a million dollars for his re-election campaign. He’d risen to one of the most powerful positions in Congress as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. And he’d recently had the opportunity to preside over the House of Representatives during one of the proudest moments of his four decades in national politics: the historic passage of health care reform that progressive presidents since Theodore Roosevelt had sought for a century.

But anyone who happened to read the online newspaper account of Obey’s retirement got an instant demonstration of just how welcome retirement might be for any thoughtful political leader these days.

One of the freak shows in online journalism is that every yahoo on the street has an opportunity to instantly post his so-called thoughts about every news event.

Within minutes of the posting of Obey’s retirement, pages of hate-filled, anonymous bile spewed forth.

“Thank GOD this socialist piece of garbage is OUTTA here!”

“Another gutless liberal that fears the voter’s rath (sic) in November!”

“Great news! One less Marxist in Congress!”

And this particularly elegant wish: “May David Obey die screaming of rectal cancer!”

At 71, why wouldn’t Obey prefer to retire from Congress on his own terms instead of once again running the gauntlet of revolting ugliness that passes for political opposition these days?

Even in his solidly Democratic district, Obey would have to put up with despicable attacks from the know-nothing government haters who have now been officially proclaimed a movement by the media.

In fact, a large number of the insulting posts accused Obey of being absolutely terrified to run in November against the awesome political power of the so-called Tea Party movement, backing a former reality TV star for Obey’s seat.

One of the ironies of Obey getting out of the race is that without a powerful incumbent, Republicans may actually be able to attract a more legitimate candidate to run.

The Democrats still will be in strong position to win the district with whichever popular Democratic officeholder ends up winning the party’s nomination.

In elections around the country, all the so-called Tea Party candidates have managed to do so far is lower the level of political debate and to push Republican incumbents further to the extreme right.

One of the reasons Obey was so publicly cantankerous at times during his career was that he did not suffer fools gladly. It’s not difficult to understand how much he loathed the idea of facing vicious attacks from Tea Party gatherings that are pretty much wall-to-wall fools.

In the memoirs of politicians from Obey’s generation, the most common complaint is the absence of personal decency between political rivals today.

They’re all nostalgic for those bygone days when leaders from opposing parties would fight each other tooth and nail on the issues and then go out for drinks together afterward.

There’s no evidence today’s politicians love alcohol any less. They’ve just become mean drunks instead of friendly ones.

The Party of Hatred

Hating politicians in general is one of the basic principles of the Tea Party movement. Add to that the undercurrent of personal hatred toward the first African-American president that has become obvious at the predominantly white Tea Party rallies.

President Barack Obama himself reflects the wider public’s desire for less partisan gridlock when he reaches across the aisle to embrace Republican positions unpopular with Democrats such as offshore oil drilling.

But the Tea Party extremists within the Republican Party refuse to tolerate any Republican siding with Obama on anything.

That’s why the biggest casualties of the Tea Party movement so far haven’t been Democrats, but Republicans like Gov. Charlie Crist in Florida and Sen. Bob Bennett in Utah who have been accused of not hating Obama enough.

Hatred is too repugnant an emotion to build an opposition party around. In fact, by purging the Republican Party of all politicians willing to work with Democrats to solve America’s problems, the Tea Party is assuring Republicans will repel moderate and independent voters for years to come.

Now that an outrageous law in Arizona has put immigration reform back on the table, continuing demonstrations of race hatred within the Republican Party could alienate Latinos, the fastest-growing voter demographic in the country, from Republicans forever.

In the long run, freak-show politics may decimate the Republican Party. But that doesn’t make inflamed hatred against Democrats any more pleasant in the short term.

Obey’s four decades of public service have been reduced to vile slurs and an ugly wish for him to die a painful, cancerous death.

So don’t ask why Obey would retire in such a toxic political atmosphere. The real question is: Why would anyone stay?