Throughout an electoral season that is, thankfully, coming to a close, the media remained fixated on a phenomenon that an increasing number of pundits and academics think may render the Republican Party asunder: the rise of the Tea Parties. The story line continues to evolve.
On some days, we are told that the Tea Party will expand its influence within the GOP until it has achieved total dominance. On others, we are led to believe that this is a movement “without a head” that spouts up in response to rising deficits and government spending as do mushrooms around a tree after a rainstorm. (Does not one need to be organized in order to dominate anything?) Either way, they tell us, Republican office holders will remain this new movement’s primary targets.
Less well explored has been an equally dramatic occurrence that is simultaneously taking place within the other political party, the one Thomas Jefferson founded. I refer to the coming split between well-educated elites and teachers unions. Both make their home in the Democratic Party.
These two groups appear to have even less in common--in both outlook and policy prescriptions--than do the Tea Party activists and the GOP. Both the Tea Partyers and establishment Republicans want to see taxes, regulations, and deficits reduced. They differ over how much they seek to cut them and how fast. Elite, well-educated reformers (“Gentry Democrats” as Michael Barone describes them; “Amateur Democrats” as James W. Wilson once referred to them) regard public schools as incubators of quality workforces the information-based economy of the 21st century will need to maintain the lead the United States currently enjoys in research and development, patents, and entrepreneurship. These groups, as they do in their places of businesses, put a premium on quality performance and accountability. The teachers unions regard public schools as warehouses to which students are assigned on the basis of where they happen to live. Consistent with the trade union culture, their primary concern remains job protection of their members. These are two full-powered locomotives heading toward each other on a common track. If he is not careful, President Obama may be the victim of the coming collision.
We have seen hints of rising tensions between these two elements of the president’s base for over a year. First, there came David Callahan’s “Traitors to their Class: The New Super Rich,” in the New Yorker, an account of how the information-based elites that rallied to Barack Obama break with their fellow Democrats on such matters as free trade, “card check,” and, yes, public sector monopolies over the delivery of education. There was the now infamous District of Columbia mayoral primary, which pit the reformist mayor Adrian Fenty against challenger Vincent Gray. No issue sparked greater controversy than the record of school superintendent Michelle Rhee, who Obama publicly hailed along with Fenty in a televised presidential debate. And no public official prior to Rhee has spent more time thinking of what D.C. children should be taught and evaluated since Thomas Jefferson. While Rhee proved Fenty’s greatest asset in his re-election campaign, the unions clearly did a better job in getting out the vote than did parents whose children benefitted from Rhee’s efforts.
Next came not one, but two disparate attempts by elements of the president’s base to turn out his supporters on November 2. Why the SEIU, AFL-CIO, NAACP, and their allies and followers of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart had to hold separate rallies on the National Mall was fairly clear. The two groups have little in common--other than their perceived fealty to Obama--and can hardly stand each other.
Now appearing in a theater near you is Davis Guggenheim’s powerful film Waiting for Superman. It tells the story of five children, who with parental encouragement, compete for limited places in better public schools than the one to which geography has sentenced them. Their fate is determined not by academic performance, but by lottery. The film’s main message could not be more plain: A nation that once made education a ticket out of poverty for so many can only, and at the sufferance of teachers unions, save a few, but by chance.
Viewers will encounter not a single Republican identifier in the film. All interviewed on all sides of the question are clearly aligned with Obama. Recently, the president had the five children featured in the film to the White House. His good gesture follows another he made at his appearance before the NAACP earlier in the year. There he proclaimed that job protection was not a civil right.
His actions, however, have not been measured up to his rhetoric. Among his first actions as president, Obama terminated a program Congress established that allowed but a handful of D.C. to escape failing public schools. This seemed a strange path for a president whose own education at a high-quality day school was made possible through the generosity of others. That he preferred to spare unions that supported him embarrassment to the future welfare of children who see him as a role model would not have been more apparent.
As Obama’s attention turns from this year’s election cycle to the one that awaits him in 2012, he will be confronting an insurmountable dilemma. Pleasing both his major donors and those who man the precincts will not be easy. And those locomotives are picking up speed.