5 Scary Things in Politics This Halloween

5 scary things about politics in 2011

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When I was 7 years old, Richard Nixon bought the New York City townhouse over the back garden wall of my family's brownstone. An industrious television reporter figured out that this meant the disgraced former president was going to be the neighbor of a former JFK aide—my father, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.—who had appeared on one of Nixon's enemies lists. When the TV crew asked my opinion of the new neighbor, I quickly replied, "I think it will be great, especially at Halloween! Get it? 'Trick or treat, Tricky Dick!' "

[Read Robert Schlesinger, Mort Zuckerman, and other U.S. News columnists in U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad.]

One subsequent Halloween did in fact find me at the door of the old Nixon place, decked out in Nixon mask, asking for treats of the unsmiling Secret Service agents who answered his door (I did in the end get a candy bar). I still have a Nixon mask above my desk, staring at me like a spirit from All Hallows' Eves past. By now old Dick is a familiar face, which is fine because politics these days has its share of scary, spooky, or just plain odd phenomena. Here are five that especially give me the willies:

Tea Party envy. Democrats and progressives are increasingly celebrating the "99 Percent" movement, which is responsible for the "occupations" of Wall Street and elsewhere. The professional left sees the 99 Percent as a possible counterbalance to the energy the Tea Party movement has brought to the right. And on one level, you can certainly understand why, given the critical edge the Tea Party gave the GOP.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Tea Party.]

But Democrats must also recognize the Faustian bargain into which the Republican Party entered. The movement has provided grass-roots energy, but it has also proved destructive to the GOP's ability to govern. Representative democracy requires give, take, and deal-making—all antithetical to a movement that values ideological purity over all else. The debt ceiling crisis and associated grandstanding, which led to the downgrade in the U.S. credit rating, were a direct result of Tea Party intransigence.

And none of this is lost on the public. A recent Time magazine poll found that pluralities view the Tea Party negatively (27 percent net favorable versus 33 percent net unfavorable) and believe it has had a negative impact on politics (34 percent positive impact against 40 percent negative).

The same poll showed Americans with a positive view of the still largely undefined 99 Percent movement. But it's no rap on the "Occupy"-ers to say that some of their views will fail to appeal to centrist voters. It's endemic to such movements, as is ideological inflexibility. That same poll showed that 89 percent of respondents want politicians to learn to work better together. Democrats should keep that figure in mind as they contemplate mounting the 99 Percent tiger.

[Check out political cartoons about the Occupy Wall Street protests.]

True blood. Some of the clearest expressions of how frightening the GOP's base is have come during the debates. These crowds have given guttural expression to the party's darker impulses. There were cheers and cries of "yeah" last month when Texas Rep. Ron Paul was asked if society should let a 30-year-old uninsured man die. Then there were boos for a gay soldier who was asking whether the GOP candidates would reinstate "don't ask, don't tell." And don't forget the applause during the last debate for businessman Herman Cain's assertion that the unemployed are to blame for unemployment (never mind that each job opening in this recession has had at least three people looking for work).

[Check out political cartoons about the economy.]

Zombie birtherism. Another expression of the scary GOP mindset is birtherism, the belief that President Obama was actually born outside the United States. The "issue," such as it was, appeared settled in April when the president released his birth certificate. But just this week, Arizona Rep. Dave Schweikert, appearing at the Western Republican Leadership Conference, was asked about the birth certificate. He dismissed the issue not as illegitimate but as a Democratic tool used to tar Republicans. "We may ultimately be right," he told his interlocutor, while also saying that the topic should be avoided. And then there was Texas Gov. Rick Perry's birther flirtation. He gratuitously associated himself with Donald Trump's ongoing birtherism, saying with his characteristic frat boy smarm: "It's a good issue to keep alive. It's fun to poke [Obama] a little bit." He was supposed to be talking about his jobs plan, and presumably one of his consultants pointed out that no, it's really not a good issue to keep alive. Hours later Perry dismissed it as "one of the biggest distractions that there is going."