TSA Body Scans, the Tea Party, and Other Things to Be Thankful For

Thanks for the TSA pat down debate, the Tea Party, and more.


There's an argument to be made that Thanksgiving is the best holiday of the year. It doesn't involve gift-giving, so you don't have to worry about hours at the mall or the nagging guilt of thank-you notes unwritten. Really there's not much to worry about at all. The biggest requirement of Thanksgiving is a big appetite and a plentiful stream of thanks for whoever cooks. It's an opportunity to relax with family, and perhaps with football.

And a tryptophan-induced stupor can be conducive to the ostensible point of the holiday: reflecting for a moment on the things in our lives for which we should be grateful. In that spirit, here's a buffet of reasons for which people in and around politics can give thanks.

Start with the great debate of this travel season: whether full-body scanners and intrusive pat-downs are too great a price for the convenience of air travel. I don't get too exercised about the scanners (do people really find those weird sci-fi images titillating?), but I'm grateful we're debating whether security is too stringent and not whether, in the wake of another tragedy, it was too lax.

[See a roundup of editorial cartoons about air security.]

Speaking of lax, New York Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel can be thankful that congressional ethics punishments are rooted in a bygone era. The lawmaker was found guilty on 11 of 13 ethics charges and is expected to be censured. This is viewed as a harsh punishment because he will have to stand in the well of the House and listen to the charges being read. Maybe that was tough when shame was a powerful force in public life, but it seems quaint today. Since politics is increasingly like sport, maybe Congress should consider adopting suspensions as punishments. Thirty days without floor privileges anyone?

House Republicans are thankful for Rangel—anything to make Democrats look bad—but the biggest focus of their thanks should be the Tea Party. Indeed, it provides reasons for almost everyone in politics to be thankful. House Republicans, of course, can thank it for the energy that propelled them to the majority.

[See editorial cartoons about the Tea Party movement.]But Senate Republicans owe the movement a debt of thanks as well. But for the Tea Party, Republicans probably would have gotten control of the Senate, which is about as mixed a blessing as you can have in politics these days. A Senate majority brings responsibility without authority. Thanks to bipartisan filibuster abuse, little gets done without 60 senators—not that the public pays close enough attention to grasp such subtleties. In the 2010 political environment, the GOP could have ended up with 51 or 52 seats, but the Tea Party knocked off solid establishment picks in favor of polarizing, uncompromising, true believers: Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, Ken Buck in Colorado, and Sharron Angle in Nevada who each fumbled gimme pickup opportunities. Truly, will anyone be toasted more at Harry Reid's Thanksgiving table than Angle?

Democrats will appreciate the Tea Party as it seeks to define itself beyond angry opposition. It remains inchoate, as it's easier to unite against something than it is to pull in one direction when in power. There is a battle brewing for the meaning of the Tea Party victory. "The Tea Party movement was born out of objections to the expanding size of government," one activist told NPR this week. "Even social conservatives didn't run on social issues." That hasn't stopped social conservatives from claiming the Tea Party mantle. And even the strictest fiscal conservatives might have noticed that the movement's king and queen—Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska—are hardened social conservatives. The battle of hard-line deficit hawks versus abortion extremists will only make Democrats look good by comparison.

[See photos of Palin and her family.]

Regardless of how it resolves, President Obama can be thankful to face an opposition energized and intoxicated by its own success. Republicans must mind their base, a group opposed to—and angered by—compromise. When the illusion of mandate carries a victorious party too far, it's never too far toward the middle. Obama will have the foil he lacked in the first two years when an obstinate GOP opposition left him negotiating with the centrists in his own party, enraging his base. Obama can look for a few areas of compromise with the Republicans, giving him credibility when he draws bright lines against their extreme impulses. As the GOP inevitably withdraws from the political center, he will be able to reoccupy it.