ALL it took was some 30,000 Republican primary voters in a tiny state to turn Christine O’Donnell into the brightest all-American media meteor since Balloon Boy. For embattled liberals, not to mention the axis of Comedy Central, “Saturday Night Live” and Bill Maher, she’s been pure comic gold for weeks: a bottomless trove of baldfaced lies, radical views and sheer wackiness. True, other American politicians have dismissed evolution as a myth. Some may even have denied joining a coven. But history will always remember her for taking a fearless stand against masturbation, the one national pastime with more fans than baseball.
Yet those laughing now may not have the last laugh in November. O’Donnell’s timely ascent in the election season’s final lap may well prove a godsend for the G.O.P.
At first some Republicans had trouble figuring this out. On primary eve, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee badmouthed O’Donnell’s “disturbing pattern of dishonest behavior.” On election night, Karl Rove belittled her “nutty” pronouncements and “checkered background” on Fox News. But by the morning after, bygones were bygones. The senatorial committee’s chairman, John Cornyn, rewarded O’Donnell’s “dishonest behavior” with an enthusiastic endorsement and a big check. A sweaty Rove reversed himself so fast you’d think he’d been forced to stay up all night listening to Glenn Beck’s greatest hits at top volume in a Roger Ailes re-education camp.
Rove’s flip-flop was no doubt hastened by his own cohort’s assaults on both his ideological purity and masculinity. The blogger Michelle Malkin labeled him an “effete sore loser,” and Sarah Palin publicly instructed him to “buck up.” But surely the larger motive for his retreat was the dawning recognition of just how valuable O’Donnell is to the G.O.P.’s national aspirations in November — even should she ultimately lose her own race in blue Delaware. Whatever her other talents, she’s more than willing to play the role of useful idiot for her party. She gives populist cover to the billionaires and corporate interests that have been steadily annexing the Tea Party movement and busily plotting to cash in their chips if the G.O.P. prevails.
While O’Donnell’s résumé has proved largely fictional, one crucial biographical plotline is true: She has had trouble finding a job, holding on to a home and paying her taxes. In this, at least, she is like many Americans in the Great Recession, including the angry claque that found its voice in the Tea Party. For a G.O.P. that is even more in thrall to big money than the Democrats, she couldn’t be a more perfect decoy.
By latching on to O’Donnell’s growing presence, the Rove-Boehner-McConnell establishment can claim it represents struggling middle-class Tea Partiers rather than Wall Street potentates and corporate titans. O’Donnell’s value is the same as that other useful idiot, Michael Steele, who remains at the Republican National Committee only because he can wave the banner of “diversity” over a virtually all-white party that alternately demonizes African-Americans, Latinos, gays and Muslims.
O’Donnell is particularly needed now because most of the other Republican Tea Party standard-bearers lack genuine antigovernment or proletarian cred. Joe Miller and Ken Buck, the Senate candidates in Alaska and Colorado, actually are graduates of elite universities like those O’Donnell lied about attending. Rick Scott, the populist running for governor in Florida, was chief executive of a health care corporation that scooped up so many Medicare and Medicaid payments it had to settle charges for defrauding taxpayers. Rand Paul, the scion of a congressman, is an ophthalmologist whose calls for spending restraint don’t extend to his own Medicare income. Carl Paladino, the truculent man of the people in New York, grew his fortune as a developer with government handouts and favors. His California bookend, Carly Fiorina, received a golden parachute worth as much as $42 million from Hewlett-Packard, where she liquidated some 20,000 jobs.
The O’Donnell template, by sharp contrast, is Palin. It was Palin’s endorsement that put O’Donnell on the map, and it’s Palin’s script that O’Donnell is assiduously following. The once obscure governor of Alaska was also tripped up by lies and gaffes when she emerged on the national stage, starting with her misrepresentation of her supposed opposition to “the bridge to nowhere.” But she quickly wove the attacks into a brilliant cloak of martyrdom that positioned her as a fierce small-town opponent of the coasts’ pointy-head elites. O’Donnell, like Palin, knows that attacks by those elites, including conservative grandees, only backfire and enhance her image as a feisty defender of the aggrieved and resentful Joe Plumbers in “real America.”
The more O’Donnell is vilified, the bigger the star she becomes, and the more she can reinforce the Tea Party’s preferred narrative as “a spontaneous and quite anarchic movement” (in the recent words of the pundit Charles Krauthammer) populated only by everyday folk upset by big government and the deficit. This airbrushed take has had a surprisingly long life even in some of the nonpartisan press. In a typical example just three weeks ago, the influential publication National Journal delivered a breathless report on how the Tea Party functions as a “headless” movement where “no one gives orders.” To prove the point, a head of the headless Tea Party Patriots vouched that “75 percent of the group’s funding comes from small donations, $20 or less.”
In fact, local chapters of Tea Party Patriots routinely received early training and support from FreedomWorks, the moneyed libertarian outfit run by the former Republican House majority leader and corporate lobbyist Dick Armey. FreedomWorks is itself a spinoff from Citizens for a Sound Economy, a pseudo-grassroots group whose links to the billionaire Koch brothers were traced by Jane Mayer in her blockbuster August exposé in The New Yorker. Last week the same Tea Party Patriots leader who bragged to the National Journal about all those small donations announced a $1 million gift from a man she would identify only as an entrepreneur. The donor’s hidden identity speaks even louder than the size of the check. As long as we don’t know who he is, we won’t know what orders he’s giving either.
Such deep-pocketed mystery benefactors — not O’Donnell, whose reported income for this year and last is $5,800 — are the real indicators of what’s going on under the broad Tea Party rubric. Big money rains down on the “bottom up” Tea Party insurgency through phantom front organizations (Americans for Prosperity, Americans for Job Security) that exploit legal loopholes to keep their sugar daddies’ names secret. Reporters at The Times and The Washington Post, among others, have lately made real strides in explaining how the game works. But we still don’t know the identities of most of those anonymous donors.
From what we do know, it’s clear that some Tea Party groups and candidates like Sharron Angle, Paul and O’Donnell are being financed directly or indirectly not just by the Kochs (who share the No. 5 spot on the new Forbes 400) but by a remarkable coterie of fellow billionaires, led by oil barons like Robert Rowling (Forbes No. 69) and Trevor Rees-Jones (No. 110). Even their largess may be dwarfed by Rupert Murdoch (No. 38) and his News Corporation, whose known cash contributions ($2 million to Republican and Republican-tilting campaign groups) are dwarfed by the avalanche of free promotion they provide Tea Party causes and personalities daily at Fox and The Wall Street Journal.
However much these corporate contributors may share the Tea Party minions’ antipathy toward President Obama, their economic interests hardly overlap. The rank and file Tea Partiers say they oppose government spending and deficits. The billionaires have no problem with federal spending as long as the pork is corporate pork. They, like most Republican leaders in 2008, supported the Bush administration’s Wall Street bailout. They also don’t mind deficits as long as they get their outsize cut of the red ink — $3.8 trillion worth if all the Bush tax cuts are made permanent.
But while these billionaires’ selfish interests are in conflict with the Tea Party’s agenda, they are in complete sync with the G.O.P.’s Washington leadership. The Republicans’ new “Pledge to America” promises the $3.8 trillion addition to the deficit and says nothing about serious budget cuts or governmental reforms that might remotely offset it. Surfing the Beltway talk shows last Sunday, you couldn’t find one without a G.O.P. politician adamantly refusing to specify a single program he might cut at, say, the Department of Education (Pell grants?) or the National Institutes of Health (cancer research?). And that’s just the small change. Everyone knows that tax cuts for the G.O.P.’s wealthiest patrons must come out of Social Security and Medicare payments for everybody else.
They are acing it, these guys. Election Day is now only a month away. The demoralized Democrats are held hostage by the unemployment numbers. And along comes this marvelous gift out of nowhere, Christine O’Donnell, Tea Party everywoman, who just may be the final ingredient needed to camouflage a billionaires’ coup as a populist surge. By the time her fans discover that any post-election cuts in government spending will be billed to them, and not the Tea Party’s shadowy backers, she’ll surely be settling her own debts with fat paychecks from “Fox & Friends.”
Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company