Rand Paul proves Tea Party isn’t ready for prime-time

OPINION - Until now, the politics of race have remained subtle in the Tea Party climate...

The Tea Party Movement is an anomaly. It is neither an actual political “party” nor a true “movement”. So far, much of the dialogue surrounding the phenomenon has been a series of questions. Who are they? What do they stand for? What do they aim to achieve?

The Tea Party appears to have been initially sparked by negative reaction to the large government bailout of the nation’s largest banks during the financial meltdown of 2008. Although the tea partiers aim most of their ire at President Obama and his administration, its leaders (largely Republicans) ignore the fact that the TARP program was originally introduced and implemented by a Republican president, George W. Bush, and his Treasury Secretary, Henry Paulson, a former CEO of Goldman Sachs.

At first, the Tea Party Movement seemed to consist of dedicated Americans concerned about government spending. However, the rhetoric quickly spiraled out of control: with claims that Obama’s presidency has parallels with Nazism, accusations that health care reform is a socialist takeover of the government, and questions regarding the president’s legitimacy, birthplace and nationality.

Thanks in large part to the recent rhetoric of GOP Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul, the Tea Partiers have begun to reveal their real agenda. They are not centrist, independent-minded people concerned for our nation and its political process. That notion is simply an invention of the Fox News network and the dedicated spokespeople following their talking points; namely Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Rush Limbaugh. Instead the Tea Partiers are an unabashedly fringe far-right movement. What’s most evident now is that they are achieving some political success in the 2010 midterm election primaries because an underlying aspect of their appeal is sadly, often race-baiting.

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Until now, the politics of race have remained subtle in the Tea Party climate: always suggesting an “us” versus “them” mentality — creating a divisive sentiment. Rand Paul echoed these nuances when he made his primary victory speech two days ago: “I have a message…from the Tea Party. A message that is loud and clear and does not mince words: we’ve come to take our government back.”

This same rhetoric has been used over the past year as a quiet call to the base. But the time has come for the Tea Party to define itself and answer a wider constituency. Who are they? And from whose hands must they now render the nation? By admitting his lack of support for the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s, Rand Paul has already answered that question, whether he is willing to admit it or not. The “us” and “them” are no longer ambiguously framed in Technicolor, but in the absolute diameters of black and white.

Rand Paul’s post-victory appearance on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show presented a particular dilemma because it may have been the first time he realized he was no longer sitting at the country golf club in Kentucky with his cronies. He unintentionally exposed the American public to the Tea Party’s true ideological colors. When Maddow asked him to give a definitive answer regarding his stance on the federal government’s ability to prevent discrimination by private businesses, he kept responding that it was an “interesting” topic and even implied that it wasn’t relevant since it had been legislatively settled in the 1960s. This reflects just how disconnected he really is.

For many African-Americans, Latinos and Asians this is not an “interesting” debate: it is a fundamental part of our lives. Rand further showed his disregard for the issues by responding to Maddow’s questions about the equal protections clause of the 14th Amendment with a 2nd Amendment defense for the right to bear arms. Only for men like Paul can guns and basic civil rights ever be confused. Rand has adopted a Libertarian view that private companies, that receive no public funding, should be allowed to discriminate along the lines of race. Not only does this reveal his lack of historical perspective, but also shows he his completely disconnected from modern day issues affecting ordinary Americans.

Although the following day Rand gave an interview to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer stating that he would have voted for the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, he remained clear about his belief that it was no longer relevant legislation. The truth of the matter is there are still hundreds of civil rights violations and legal challenges to those abuses are argued in federal courts ever year. Rand Paul has proven he is out of his league and unprepared for the real spotlight he is now under. He may have been able to remain ambiguous on these issues at the local level, but the national stage requires specificity.

Be that as it may, this is a good thing—at least for the Democratic Party. Until now, the Republican Party has enjoyed the advantage of the Tea Party’s rallying of the base and the grassroots organizational movement turning out conservatives to the polls. Republicans in Washington were excited about the energized political activism and thought it could guarantee an upset in Congress in this November’s elections.

But this narrative is no longer playing to their favor. The anti-incumbency sentiment has made establishment Republicans like Utah Senator Bob Bennett causalities of this conservative shift to the right. Governor Charlie Crist learned a similar lesson when he was forced to leave the Republican Party, and run as an Independent in Florida’s Senate race, because of his likely defeat by Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio. These upsets encouraged many Republicans to begin aligning themselves with the Tea Partiers if for no other reason, than to save their jobs.

But what now? In April 2010 a joint New York Times/CBS poll revealed that the members of the Tea Party were not average Americans, but rather tended to be wealthy, Republican, older white males over the age of 45; and were more likely to describe themselves as “angry”.

How can the Republican Party thrive without distancing themselves from this fringe movement? If Rand Paul’s comments aren’t reflective of the general Tea Party sentiment then will the Tea Party condemn his comments? And if they aren’t reflective of Republican political thought, then will Republicans express their disregard for such divisive remarks? Either way, progressive action requires a break from the past and the challenge for Republicans will be to no longer hide in the shadows and benefit as political opportunists.

The good news here is that these revelations present an opportunity for Obama and the Democratic establishment to defeat the Republican surge in the November midterm elections. By exposing the Tea Partiers and their Republican allies, the Democrats can present themselves as the positive, progressive and inclusive party it traditionally has been.

Rand Paul’s ill-chosen words reveal that the Tea Partiers are no longer hiding, like the Ku Klux Klan behind white sheets. Instead they have uncovered their faces, revealed their intent and voiced their agenda. In so doing, we are now keenly aware that they are divisive, not inclusive, and regressive, rather than progressive, remaining on the periphery of American democratic values. As a result they are wholly unfit to govern the diverse America they refuse to accept.

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