Tuesday, July 12, 2011
The Tea Party's Real Founder
In my last post, I compared the current debt ceiling crisis to the political paralysis that led to the Compromise of 1850. It was the last slavery crisis that was resolved peacefully. The spirit of compromise was exhausted. The difficulty of resolving the issues in 1850 was a harbinger of the utter inability to find a compromise a decade later.
The most interesting part of that crisis was South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun 's final address to Congress. Calhoun's 1850 speech was historical foreshadowing, indicating that Southern Democrats were ceasing to be "normal" (as David Brooks would put it). Ten years later, the mere election of a president without Southern votes would appear to them reason enough to destroy the Union.
The most prominent part of the address is Calhoun's utter rejection of compromise. And that makes him the Tea Party's real Founding Father.
Speaking of his section, the South, Calhoun said: "She has no compromise to offer but the Constitution, and no concession or surrender to make." He insisted that if the Union were endangered, it was not because of the atrocious institution of slavery that he spent most of his career defending, but due to the "agitation" of the opponents of slavery.
Having himself raised the specter of secession, Calhoun demanded that the North show that it loved the Union by surrendering unconditionally to southern demands.
Calhoun's tone finds its modern parallel in the current uncompromising attitude of the Tea Party Republicans on the debt ceiling. The crisis of 1850 was a crisis because slaveholders threatened secession if they did not get their way. Today the debt ceiling is a crisis because Tea Party Republicans have decided to take the previously uncontroversial vote and use it for leverage to impose an ideological agenda.
Southerners in 1850 were in the minority, but stood in the way of everything, blocking majorities from passing legislation of which they did not approve. Today, Republicans control the House, but are in the minority in the Senate and do not control the Executive branch. Yet they insist on a one-sided deal and threaten to cause default if they do not get their way.
Rather than accepting that their minority position meant that they were in no position to dictate, Southerners turned their weakness into a strength. They were willing to bring the house crashing down if they did not get their way. If the North did not give the South everything it wanted, Calhoun said, it would mean that "her love of power and aggrandizement is far greater than her love of the Union." This, coming from a man who raised the prospect of secession in the very first sentence of this speech!
For Calhoun, his support of slavery had become an inviolable principle. Any limit on the growth of the institution was, for him, a deal-breaker.
So it seems today with taxes and the Tea Party. Rep. Tom Graves, Republican and self-identified Tea Party Congressman from Georgia, said: "You know, when we hear the word 'compromise' on Capitol Hill, that's what got us into this mess over the last several decades…. This is no time for compromise."
Conventional wisdom has it that Speaker John Boehner wants a deal, and that fear of the Tea Party caucus is what prompted Majority Leader Eric Cantor's temper tantrum when taxes were raised in the bipartisan deficit reduction talks. It seems that Speaker John Boehner had to back away from a "grand bargain" this past weekend because he could not sell the Tea Partiers on a deal that included any increases in revenue.
Calhoun sought leverage in the South's willingness to destroy the unity of the nation over the issue of slavery. Today's anti-tax fanatics find leverage in their willingness to push the nation to the brink of financial disaster and debt default.
Being so committed to principle that you would prefer disaster to compromise is liberating, if reckless and irresponsible. Calhoun finished his address, and his political career, with these words: "I shall have the consolation let what will come, that I am free from all responsibility."
The next two weeks should tell whether Tea Party Republicans prefer flirting with disaster to governing with responsibility.