Is politics imitating art? In “The Phantom of the Opera,” opera singer Christine DaaÃ© is kidnapped by the deformed, masked Eric. The most dramatic scene is when Christine rips off Eric’s mask, revealing underneath the horrifying face of a rotting corpse. And so it is in 2013: independents, moderates, centrists, Democrats, moderate Republicans, traditional conservative Republicans, the Republican establishment have all now seen the underlying face of the Tea Party. And it isn’t pretty.
True, it doesn’t upset the Tea Party’s political choir (Tea Partiers, many conservative bloggers, conservative talk show hosts and their fans) but to many Americans the glimpse of what they’ve seen is troubling -- and will linger.
The mask the Tea Partiers have worn is that they were merely patriots who wanted smaller government and fiercely resisted restrictions on freedoms. Now the mask has come off in the government shut down and default crisis and many Americans see part of the Republican Party ready to plunge the country and the world economy into a downward spiral if it doesn’t get by political extortion what it couldn’t get at the ballot box, through Congress or through court rulings. The litany of utterances from Tea Partiers are like what you’d hear on fringe UHF TV stations from extremist groups in the 1960s, but it now reflects a group virtually controlling the Republican Party.
Televangelist Pat Robertson is shocked after seeing what’s underneath the mask: “They cannot shut the government down and then bring about a default,” he said “We cannot do it... It would be devastating economically to every human being, and the Republicans just cannot get tarred with that.” (He must be a RINO.)
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee wasn’t happy about a government shutdown to try and defund Obamacare. “I thought it was a stupid tactical blunder on the part of the Republicans,” Huckabee said on his popular radio show. “I think it’s doing a lot of damage -- first to the country, and frankly to the Republicans.” (He must be a RINO.)
Words uttered by GOP Tea Party members of Congress would be unimaginable just five years ago. Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL) said not raising the debt ceiling would “bring stability to world markets.” At least one suggested that decimating the United States might be good for the ideological cause.
“I will remind you that this group of renegades that decided that they wanted to break from the crown in 1776 did great damage to the economy of the colonies,” Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) told a reporter. “They created the greatest nation and the best form of government, but they did damage to the economy in the short run.”
A “Million Vet March” that led to a White House occupied by an African-American family ended in a highly publicized image of a demonstrator holding a confederate flag, and a far-right activist saying Obama should “put down the Koran” and leave town. Neither were massively repudiated by the Republican Party or Tea Partiers.
Former Bush speechwriter David Frum predicts this crisis is far from over, due to a shift: “The American system has historically been governed by unwritten norms every bit as important as the formal rules of the House and Senate,” he writes. “Over the past generation-and especially since 2009-those norms have faded away, replaced by a new and more ruthless style of politics.”
But blogger Martin Longman suggests something good could emerge from the Tea Party dominated House’s drama-o-rama: “Over the last several years, compromises have proved impossible, but that may be about to change,” he writes. “If there was a point to this whole fiasco, it was to prove that compromises have to be made. The public will not tolerate more gridlock.”
Indeed: at the end of the Phantom of the Opera, Christine gets away from Eric but gives him a kiss, and he leaves instructions for someone to inform her of his death so she can bury him. Today, the vast majority of the American public seems ready to tell the Tea Party to kiss off. But in this case, the Tea Party is burying itself.
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He has appeared on cable news show political panels and is Editor-in-Chief of The Moderate Voice, an Internet hub for independents, centrists and moderates. He also writes for The Week’s online edition. CNN’s John Avlon named him as one of the top 25 Centrists Columnists and Commentators. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org