Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Tea Party Loses

I’m writing this on Wednesday, November 3, the day after the 2010 congressional midterms, and I have to say, I’m pleased to see that the Tea Party rhetoric I’ve been enduring for the last year and a half has proven to be almost entirely hype.

While the Republicans have managed to eke out a majority in the House, the Senate remains in the hands of the Democrats, albeit by a thin margin. The Republican resurgence promised by establishment and Tea Party Republicans alike (not to mention various news outlets) has simply failed to materialize.

Most heartening to the moderate-minded are the losses of fringe Tea Party candidates across the country. With a few exceptions, the core representatives of Tea Party ideology have lost their bids for relevance in American politics.

Alaska’s senate contest is a case in point. Joe Miller won the Republican nomination by claiming the mantle of the Tea Party, but his establishment challenger, Lisa Murkowski, refused to bow out of the race. Instead, Murkowski ran a write-in campaign without the formal blessing of the Republican party, and as I write this, she seems poised to actually win the Senate seat. Look forward to months of desperate legal wrangling as Miller pulls every dirty trick in the book to get Murkowski’s write-in votes tossed out on technicalities.

Nevada’s truly incompetent Sharron Angle also went down in flames, saving the career of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Angle is a candidate who exemplifies the demagoguery of the Tea Party: completely without ideas, running solely on the phrase “take back our country” without any notion of what that might substantively mean. Angle has actively refused to discuss her positions on the issues, even going so far as to tell an interviewer asking foreign policy questions, “I will answer those questions when I'm the senator.” Uh, what?

Most delightful of the Tea Party failures is Christine O’Donnell’s monumental loss to Chris Coons by a whopping 17% (according to the count at the time of this writing). Readers will recall O’Donnell as the evolution-denying anti-masturbation whackjob from Delaware. O’Donnell claimed during a debate that the Constitution doesn’t call for separation of church and state. (Check the First Amendment to be sure!) At a Tea Party rally, that probably would have gone over well. The debate, however, was being held at a law school, where people know the law, and the crowd actually laughed at her. Here’s hoping that sets a pattern for the foreseeable future.

And then there are the illusory Tea Party wins, where establishment Republicans have wrapped themselves in the Tea Party mantle and run as the most disingenuous of “outsiders.” Tom Coburn of Oklahoma is a paradigmatic example. Coburn has been a cog in the Republican machine since election to the House back in 1994, but this term he slapped a “Tea Party” label on himself and got elected to a second term in the Senate. Yes, the “outsider” got elected to a second term. Look for Tea Partiers to claim this as a victory, and never mind that Oklahoma’s senate seats have both been occupied by Republicans for 15 years.

Jim DeMint of South Carolina is almost exactly the same story: re-elected to a second term in the Senate after a career in the House. The only difference is that DeMint was elected to the House in 1998 instead of 1994.

In a somewhat less clear-cut case of faux Tea Party “wins,” Rand Paul has been elected the successor to a Republican Senate seat in Kentucky. This despite his history of insane right wing claims (arguing that businesses ought to be able to refuse service to minority patrons, for instance). While this nudges the Senate a bit to the right ideologically, it doesn’t change the balance of power between the two parties because Paul is taking a seat that was already held by a Republican. Though Paul has more credibility as an “outsider” than Coburn or DeMint, he has proven himself willing to toe the party line time and again over the course of his campaign.

Don’t get me wrong, there were a few real Tea Party victories this year, but not enough to establish them as a political force of any real significance. For the most part, “real” Tea Party candidates got shellacked, and establishment cogs simply rode the wave of popular resentment right back into power.

It remains to be seen, however, what Republicans will do with their newfound power in the House. While both President Obama and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are uttering the usual platitudes about working together, I have my doubts, especially in light of the last few months Republicans have spent promising to stop the federal government in its tracks.

Further, the last time Republicans took control of the House under a Democratic president, they used the opportunity to flood Bill Clinton’s White House with muckraking Congressional subpoenas, one of which culminated in his impeachment. I expect to see Republicans undertake the same tactics again, but only time will tell.

EDIT: This column was run by the GSU Signal under the title "Tea Party's rhetoric is empty."

Friday, November 05, 2010

And Again, the Rest of the World Catches Up

I ran across this article about Republican leadership realizing Sarah Palin is unelectable. I said the same thing when she quit as governor back in July of 2009.

Once again, the rest of the world catches up.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

President Requests New Electronic Surveillance Tools

NOTE: I'm writing for the Georgia State University Signal once again. This and the next few posts are articles published by the paper.

A few weeks ago, the media spent about ten minutes discussing a new proposal by the Obama administration which would require telecommunications carriers to install special government-only “backdoors” permitting the decryption of many different kinds of electronic communications. The story faded fast, but I nonetheless find myself continuing to ponder this news.

On the one hand, my immediate response as a libertarian is one of horror. It scares the bejeezus out of me that the government is even asking for this kind of access to citizens’ chat conversations, text messages, and other electronic communications. I’ve been extremely wary of electronic surveillance since back in 2002 when AT&T, Verizon, BellSouth, and several other telecoms quietly acceded to the National Security Administration’s now-famous (and illegal) warrantless wiretapping program.

On the other hand, there are several safeguards in this proposal that distinguish it from the NSA program. For starters, this is an ordinary law enforcement program, not a national security program. This means the process is unlikely to be kept tightly secret, as the NSA program was until the New York Times broke the story. Less secrecy means more oversight, which in turn means that the new surveillance tools are less likely to be abused.

Further, the proposed legislation requires that law enforcement agencies obtain warrants before they begin monitoring a person’s communications, which is a major difference between the two programs. This means that a judge must find probable cause and sign off on any proposed surveillance before law enforcement agents can actually use the backdoor system. Theoretically at least, this puts the law on the same footing as most other surveillance laws.

In the abstract, I have no objection to a law that makes it easier for the government to track down murderers, drug dealers, and white collar criminals. The government of course needs the tools to enforce the law. If the police have a judge’s authorization, it doesn’t make sense for them to hack through private encryption to track suspects’ communications. On the face of it, the backdoor provision makes perfect sense.

But long experience has taught us that government employees are no less susceptible to temptation than the rest of us, and the sheer scope of the proposed power is worrying. Once a law enforcement officer obtains the means to decrypt electronic communications, what assurances are there that she will not misuse that tool in the future? What is to prevent her from snooping a bit more than required once she has access to the system? The current proposal seems to contain little in the way of safeguards to prevent this sort of abuse.

The first thing that came to my mind when I read this story is the recent firing of a Google engineer, David Barksdale, who used his special access privileges to monitor the accounts of several (incidentally underage) private citizens, including Gmail, Google Voice, and Google Chat accounts. Barksdale had rather high level access to Google’s systems because he needed it to do his job, but instead he decided to pursue personal goals with those tools. Indeed, it wasn’t until Barksdale revealed to his victims that he had been monitoring them that he was caught. His victims’ parents contacted Google, and Google quietly fired him. In the case of an overreaching law enforcement officer, justice is not likely to come so easily.

Though the idea sounds good in principle, this plan strikes me as an invitation to abuse unless it is revised to include much more comprehensive safeguards.

Edit 11/4/2010: The version of this story published by the Signal has some minor wording differences. Unsurprisingly, I like my version better, but in the interest of posterity, here's a link to the "official" version.