A turning point in US politics?

Posted by Alexander Hay

The big force in American politics recently has been the Tea Party and a militant lurch by the Republicans to the right. But three significant electoral turnarounds may have put the movement on the back foot

The 2012 vote might not be going the Republicans' way...It must be great fun being a Republican congressman these days. No need to think your own thoughts any more - you just have to listen to Fox News and play to the disenchanted Tea Party. Get anything done? Not while you're doing your best to paralyse the political process and scupper everything President Obama tries to do! Yes, things are peachy now, just sit back and know that being ideologically sound means never having to say you're sorry...

Or at least that's how it used to be. The first signs of trouble were in the Republican Primaries, where the likes of Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry and now Herman Cain are doing their damnedest to make Sarah Palin's buffoonery look relatively credible by comparison. Meanwhile, a backlash seems to be building towards the rightward lurch the Grand Old Party has taken too.

To begin with, everyone's beginning to notice the ongoing sabotage of any bill put before Congress by the Presidency. When unemployment is refusing to get much better and the economy is still looking decidedly moth-eaten, to say the least, the Republican's defeat of Obama's most recent jobs bill has not gone unnoticed - if the President's approval ratings are low, Congress's are lower still. While the Republicans play politics, many voters are wondering whether they shouldn't try to help get the economy going again instead, as you probably would.

As the Occupy Wall Street movement, meanwhile, continues to spread and gain support, the funding of the Tea Party by the likes of the Koch Brothers and the Republican Party's own never-ending love-in with precisely the kind of big business the protesters (and the public) are railing against is beginning to look like a liability, but three big losses at the ballot boxes spell real trouble.

Firstly, a controversial anti-union law was struck down in Ohio, scene of some bitter political conflict between Republican governor John Kasich and public sector unions as the former tried to limit collective bargaining. Interestingly, support for the campaign to defeat the law came from a broad swathe of Ohioans, including conservatives. The law was seen as far too extreme for most people's liking.

Secondly, there is the defeat of the Personhood Bill in the Republican stronghold of Mississippi. If passed, this would have extended the legal definition of a 'person' to a just-fertilised ovum, with considerable implications for in vitro fertilisation and the Morning After pill. Likewise, it would have criminalised abortion even in cases of rape and incest.

From there, a similar set of bills would have been proposed in other states, leading eventually to a legal challenge in the US Supreme Court that could have lead to the over-turning of the Woe vs. Wade legal judgement which legalised abortion across the United States - the real motivation behind the bill.

Nonetheless, the bill was defeated, in part because of its extremity which was presented as a sort of key selling point. Even the conservative, pro-life electors of Mississippi found the bill far too intrusive and sweeping, while the die-hard anti-abortionists of the Catholic Church spoke out against the bill, claiming it was so extreme, it might in fact discredit their own attempts to overturn Woe vs. Wade. One Rabbi went so far as to describe the bill as "...a blunt instrument which, if passed, will harm Mississippi women and their families both physically and spiritually." When even clerics think you're overdoing it, it's usually a sign that you are.

Beyond the 'Every Sperm Is Sacred' silliness of the proposal, its very extremism was seen as off-putting. This is significant, as militancy and an uncompromising approach is one of the key selling points of the current Republican settlement. If it is actually driving voters away, then the Republicans are in trouble, especially if this takes place in states that are otherwise staunch supporters of the party.

Which brings us to Arizona, the home state of the last Republican Presidential candidate, John McCain, and a resolutely conservative state - in many ways, the archetypical Red State. Until yesterday, it also had one Russell Pearce as both state senator and senate president, and self-proclaimed 'Tea Party President', renowned for his hardline SB 1070 law, which cracked down on illegal immigration in the state with such ferocity that similar laws have been passed in other states, including most significantly, Alabama.

You would think, then, that a recall vote, let alone one where a hard right politician in a right wing US state would be thrown out on his ear, would be highly unlikely. In fact, 53.4% of voters chose to eject Pearce in favour of a moderate who was also an outspoken critic of SB 1070.

Again, the law in question actually worked against the Republicans due to its harshness, the 'papieren bitte!' culture it created being anathema to many right-thinking, 'don't tread on me' Republicans. Given the complex and ambivalent nature of the US/Mexico border, its bluntness was also deeply clumsy and unjust, and, needless to say, too extreme for most voters. A scandal involving free American Football match tickets didn't help either. Fire and brimstone politics only makes you more vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy if you are caught out.

It was who won, however, that is most interesting. Pearce's replacement, Jerry Lewis, is also a Republican, and sold himself on old fashioned Republican themes such as family values, private sector experience and public service. In other words, he is in effect what most people would imagine a Republican politician to look like, his only controversial feature being his Mormonism, which doesn't seem to be doing fellow Latter Day Saint Mitt Romney, and likely Presidential candidate, any harm - another turning point, perhaps.

Jerry Lewis may in fact be what the Republicans end up looking like again when their current extremism burns up. He's on the right, but still seems comparatively centrist, and elections are always won from the centre. Indeed, one can't help but think that most Americans are Conservatively Liberal or Liberally Conservative, and to ignore this fundamental fact means the Republican Party is guaranteed to lose the White House for a second time to Barack Obama. Perhaps then, they'll learn to say sorry again.

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Alexander Hay

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