Obama's Rapturous Style versus Tea Party Substance

In his New York Times column last week, David Brooks contrasted "the educated class," which supports Barack Obama and his liberal worldview, with the tea party movement, "a large, fractious confederation of Americans who are defined by what they are against, . . . the concentrated power of the educated class."

Many conservatives read Brooks as putting down the tea partiers. I think he was indicating distaste for both sides. "I'm not a fan" of the tea party movement, he wrote, but he also noted, "Every single idea associated with the educated class has grown more unpopular over the year."

Still, it sounds like Brooks was indulging the conceit of so many liberals that they are, well, simply smarter than conservatives.

Agree with the tea party folk or not, these are substantive public policy issues of fundamental importance.

But when you look back over the surges of enthusiasm in the politics of the last two years, you see something like this: The Obama enthusiasts who dominated so much of the 2008 campaign cycle were motivated by style. The tea party protesters who dominated so much of 2009 were motivated by substance.

Remember those rapturous crowds that swooned at Barack Obama's rhetoric. "We are the change we are seeking," he proclaimed. "We will be able to look back and tell our children," that "this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."

A lot of style there, but not very much substance. A Brookings Institution scholar who produced nothing more than that would soon be looking for a new job.

In retrospect, the Obama enthusiasts seem to have been motivated by a yearning for a rapturous, nuanced leader. Send that terrible tyrant with his tortured sentences and moral certitude back to Texas and install The One in the White House, and all would be well.

The Obama enthusiasts have achieved that goal, and perhaps it's not surprising that, as polls show, they're not much engaged in the details of the health care bills or cap-and-trade legislation or looming tax increases and the like. They, or at least most of them, were never much interested in those things anyway.

In contrast, the tea party protesters, many of them as fractious and loudmouthed as David Brooks thinks, are interested in substantive political issues. They decry the dangers of expanding the national debt, increasing government spending, and putting government in command of the health care sector.

Their concerns have basis in fact. The national debt is on a trajectory to double as a percentage of the economy over 10 years, and the Democrats' health care bills threaten to bend the cost curve up. Higher taxes could choke off economic recovery and keep unemployment up near double-digit rates for years.

Last year's stimulus bill surreptitiously raised the budget baseline for many domestic spending programs and sent money to state and local governments -- a payoff to the public employee unions who spent more than $100 million to elect Democrats in 2008.

Agree with the tea party folk or not, these are substantive public policy issues of fundamental importance.

Or look at other issues on which Brooks notes, correctly, that Americans have been moving away from positions "associated with the educated class."

The educated class thinks that gun control can reduce crime. But over the last 15 years, crime rates have plummeted thanks to Giuliani-type police tactics and while 40 states have laws permitting law-abiding citizens to get licenses to carry concealed weapons.

"The educated class believes in global warming," Brooks notes. But ordinary Americans have been noticing that temperatures have not been rising in the last decade as climate scientists' models predicted, and they may have noticed those Climategate e-mails that show how climate scientists have been jiggering the statistics and suppressing opposing views.

On these issues the educated class is faith-based and the ordinary Americans who increasingly reject their views are fact-based, just as the Obama enthusiasts are motivated by style and the tea partiers by substance.

As the educated class bitterly clings to its contempt for the increasing numbers not enlightened enough to share its views, other Americans have noticed, even in the liberal heartland of Massachusetts, where Republican Scott Brown seems on the brink of an upset victory in the special Senate election next Tuesday. That would have reverberations for the educated class an awful lot like that tea party back in 1773.

Michael Barone is a senior fellow at AEI.

Photo credit: ajagendorf25/Fllickr/Creative Commons.

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  • Michael Barone, a political analyst and journalist, studies politics, American government, and campaigns and elections. The principal coauthor of the annual Almanac of American Politics (National Journal Group), he has written many books on American politics and history. Barone is also a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner.

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