Saturday morning at the Capitol started with a bout of déjà vu: House Republicans gathering in a basement, learning that their latest shutdown demands would not be met. Around 10 a.m., when the meeting ended, Republicans had little good to say about the latest offers from the president and the Senate. Most of them avoided the cameras and returned to their offices. A handful of members spun out of the room and headed to the park on the west of the Capitol, just a couple hundred feet away.
They found sanctuary inside a small, triangle-shaped clearing blocked off by portable fences. Tea Party Patriots and FreedomWorks, two of the movement’s oldest organizing forces, had asked activists to help “fix up D.C.” by filling in for the furloughed custodians of the national mall. Glenn Beck, who’s been paid at least $1 million to work with FreedomWorks, had flown in to lead the clean-up. Utah Sen. Mike Lee, one of the capos of the “defund Obamacare” campaign, was his co-star. A hundred or so people gathered around the fences, snapping photos and listening to members of Congress update Lee and Beck.
“We were told in conference that the president wants to use the Senate to break Republicans,” Rep. Michele Bachmann told Lee. Lee explained that some silly Republicans were already willing to try to cut a deal with Obama—“trust us this time.” Beck sketched out his speech and smiled for photos with Matt Kibbe, the president of FreedomWorks, who’d come wearing jeans and a green trucker’s hat that read, “VOLUNTEER.” None of them got any privacy to strategize until FreedomWorks’ outreach director Deneen Borelli stepped up to a microphone to address the crowd, the noise drowning out everything else.
“Today brings back great memories for me,” she said, “because four years ago FreedomWorks had the amazing march on D.C.—9/12. And that event drew over 800,000 freedom-loving Americans. Because of that rally I was launched as a national figure to stand for liberty.”
Anyone not at this rally would have been confused. Was Borelli, the author of Blacklash: How Obama and the Left Are Driving Americans to the Government Plantation, a “national figure?” Was it the best idea to invoke the heyday of the Tea Party, when scores more people could have flooded the space around the Capitol? Two weeks into the shutdown, Sen. Ted Cruz’s “grassroots tsunami” to defund Obamacare hasn’t materialized. Polling suggests that the Republican position is waning from week to week.
The activists simply don’t believe it. Washington was occupied all weekend by conservatives who insisted that the shutdown was an act of malice by President Obama, exemplified by the closure of national monuments. “Truckers for the Constitution,” a group of conspiracy theorists who occasionally appear on Fox News, won a mind-blowing amount of media attention for an attempt to “shut down the Beltway” with their several-dozen trucks. The Values Voter Summit, an annual meeting of social conservatives, made light of the shutdown by putting barricades on its stage—a reminder of the haphazardly enforced gates in front of monuments on the National Mall. The Washington Examiner, a magazine that recently reduced its local reporting staff to focus on politics, told readers that an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showing the GOP badly losing was skewed toward government workers. That made it “all but useless as support for strategic decisions by anybody involved in the shutdown debate,” but “perfectly consistent with the conventional wisdom of the traditional media.”
“I haven’t seen much public reaction except people criticizing the administration,” said Regis Campbell, a Maryland activist who’d bought two rakes to the clean-up rally. “Sure, the polls do say people blame Republicans, but I don’t know—I think when push comes to shove, people will realize where the blame really lies. All [Obama] has to do is come down with an executive order to stop the mandate, OK? Then we could give him a clean CR.”
“It’s fascinating,” said Pat Jakowski, a Maryland physical therapist who brought a garbage-picking wand to the Saturday rally. “If you really look at the demographics of the polls, you can see how easily they skew them. It’s another misleading source of information. The intelligent people who really pay attention to information can’t count on that.”
Beck’s speech tested the theory. The former Fox News host, who now runs a subscription-based online news channel, regaled the crowd with the story of anti-slavery Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner. “He was, I think, the Ted Cruz or Mike Lee or Rand Paul of his day,” said Beck. “The most hated Whig! He was the guy who was kind of really leading the Whig Party. There were only 20 of them, but they were tired of the lies. They knew the Whig Party was playing around with slavery, but it was time for slavery to end.”
Sumner, according to Beck, was hated because he proved how phony the rest of his party was when it pretended to oppose a law, and that his Whigs needed to be replaced by a new, honest party. “When Charles Sumner was on the floor of the Senate, a guy came from the House of Representatives came in with a big cane and beat him almost to death. Almost killed him! Nobody helped him—the only reason he survived was that he was able to drag himself underneath his desk. It took him two years to heal. They never prosecuted the guy with the cane, because he was popular. He was in a special, protected class!”
Beck got the caning right, but basically nothing else. By 1856, when Sumner was caned, the senator was already aligned with the new Republicans. Rep. Preston Brooks—the congressman who delivered the caning—was a Southern Democrat, not an angry Whig punishing Sumner for making the party look bad. He resigned after a failed vote to expel him from Congress, and he was fined $300—not the punishment he deserved, obviously, but a fluke of his support from the South, not a protection racket by the elites.
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