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Method to madness in Tea Party Congressional hostage taking

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

The frequently asked question since the start of the partial government shutdown and the GOP saber rattle over the debt ceiling raise is: How can so few hold so many hostage and why? The few are, of course, the estimated 40 House Republicans that are solidly Tea Party aligned. The majority of them were elected in the 2010 national elections. This means they have been in Congress barely three years. Yet they have managed to force dozens of votes to defund or repeal the Affordable Care Act, stymied even a whimper of discussion of tougher gun control provisions, and immigration reform, while repeatedly plopping a small telephone book of demands for spending cuts on everything from Head Start to food nutrition programs.

Their biggest coup is to thoroughly terrorize House Speaker John Boehner into not taking a vote on a clean resolution that would end the partial shutdown and raise the debt ceiling. He’s scared stiff of a challenge by these Republicans to his House Speaker position. But contrary to a frequently stated notion that the Tea Party has doomed the GOP to a massive election defeat in 2014, that’s more wish than fact. The Tea Party backed House Republicans’ bank on their perceived trump card to make sure this stays a wish. That’s President Obama. He has been the single biggest foil, and flashpoint for organizing and stoking subtle and at times overt racial antagonism.

The Tea Party strategy was strongly hinted at by Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus a year ago when he staunchly defended then-Florida Congressman Allen West after one of his many over-the-top sound-offs against Obama. On this occasion, he charged that Obama wanted to turn Americans into his “economic slaves.” These type of all-too-frequent outbursts from Tea Party backers serve a purpose for the GOP. They touch a deep, dark, and throbbing pulse among legions of ultra conservatives who think that Obama and many Democrats are communists, gays are immoral, and that the health care reform law is a massive government intrusion into their personal affairs. Mainstream GOP leaders can’t utter these inanities. They must always give the appearance that they are above the verbal mugging of Obama, Democrats and minorities. Yet that’s only part of the value of this tactic to the GOP.

GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney and dozens of GOP candidates that sought to oust perceived vulnerable Democrats from House and Senate seats in 2012 knew they had to fire up their base to have any chance at the White House and maintain control of the House. They needed ultra conservatives and conservative Christian evangelicals to mass march to the polls. To ignite the march, it was not enough to simply pound Obama and the Democrats on health-care reform, immigration, alleged big government intrusion and tax- and spend-profligacy. There had to be a hypercharged emotional edge to rally the big numbers the GOP needed and still needs to win.

GOP presidents and aspiring presidents, Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr., W. Bush and McCain as well as packs of GOP governors, senators and congresspersons banked on subtle race and character attacks for victory and to seize and maintain regional and national political dominance. The strategy has worked like a political charm for four decades.

The GOP is an insular party of Deep South and narrow Heartland rural, non-college-educated blue-collar whites. That’s not a demographic to be totally sneered at, because the numbers are still huge. But the number of voters who don’t fit that demographic is even bigger and fast growing.

In the past decade the number of black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American voters has leaped to nearly one quarter of the nation’s electorate. At the same time, blue-collar white voters shrunk from more than half of the nation’s voters to less than 40 percent. Obama handily won the Hispanic and Asian vote and crushed GOP presidential contenders John McCain and Romney with the black vote. Since then the number of potential non-white and youth voters has continued to climb and the white electorate has marginally dropped.

The GOP and its Tea Party shock troops in the House and Senate have fully read the political tea leaves and they know that the 2014 midterm elections shape up to be a titanic battle for the GOP to hold onto the House and to snatch the three seats needed to take control of the Senate. While the Tea Party is declining in overall numbers and support it still can make enough noise and in some districts turn out sufficient numbers to make a difference in close contests. That’s even more vital in swing districts with Democratic congresspersons that are on shaky ground with conservative voters. The Tea Party House Republicans bank that their debt ceiling raise and government shutdown ploys will pay a political dividend. There’s clear method in their madness.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.