When Sharron Angle had the audacity to denounce mandates for autism testing --putting the word autism in finger quotes, as if she thinks there is no such thing--I wondered if the Democrats would be smart enough to pick up that ball and run with it. Attacking early testing for autism goes right into the bin with "advocating puppy kicking" in terms of highly unpopular political ideas. Now it looks like the Democrats are going to ride this story for all it's worth; Kathleen Sebelius jumped in and denounced Angle for her stance against mandated coverage for autism testing.
It almost seems as if Angle couldn't stand that Christine O'Donnell was sucking up the headlines for most far-out thing of the day said, and knew that it was time to whip out the finger quotes to regain lost ground in that contest. Hey, if you can't win your respective elections, then "Biggest Wingnut of the 2010 Elections" might be a consolation prize.
You can see why using your fingers to make air quotes is such an attractive gesture for conservatives, because it's a way to hat tip the roiling paranoid theories that motivate the right-wing base, and the base needs lots and lots of hat tips to keep them energized. John McCain used finger quotes around the phrase "health of the mother" during the 2008 debates to hat tip the anti-choice claims that women who get therapeutic abortions are just lying about their health problems to get their hands on the unparalleled pleasures of outpatient surgery. Now we have Sharron Angle using the finger quotes in a way that, in the typical fashion of the 1990s, when air quotes were popular, would indicate she thinks "autism" is a fake disease made up by a bunch of lying liberals so they can squeeze insurance companies of money to pay for the no-doubt blissful joys of having to put your child through a bunch of testing, medical care, and remedial education that children with autism get.
Of course, the fact that air quotes are about as hip a gesture as putting a Toad the Wet Sprocket album on at a party is yet another sign that the Republicans have abandoned all hope of attracting many voters under the age of 50. Sharron Angle didn't just single out autism testing as an outrageous thing that insurance companies shouldn't have to pay for. She also singled out maternity leave, saying, "I'm not going to have any more babies, but I sure get to pay for it on my insurance. Those are the kinds of things we want to get rid of." The common theme of things they want to get rid of? Anything that might be a more pressing concern for the under-50 set. Maternity leave and testing small children for autism are just two examples of concerns of young parents, mostly people in their 20s through their early 40s. At the heart of much of the conservative movement bellyaching over health care reform has been this generational warfare--older people who think it's fine and dandy to demand that the younger generations pay for their heart medications and hip surgeries, but who flip out if they have to help pay for the medical concerns of younger people, such as reproductive care and pediatric care. If I were to sum up the Tea Party with one issue, I'd say that it's a whole lot of people on Medicare and disability throwing a fit because they don't want people who aren't to have easier access to health care.
Photograph of Sharron Angle by Ethan Miller for Getty Images.