The Tea Party, Exported

How do you explain Christine O'Donnell to the French?

It was the closest I will ever come to being hounded by the paparazzi.

On Oct. 22, I briefed foreign journalists at the National Press Club in Washington on the Tea Party and how it is upending the midterm elections. My book about the Tea Party, Boiling Mad, came out in September, and I had been covering the movement for the past year for the New York Times. After I spent a full hour answering questions, the staff of the Foreign Press Center pronounced the session over, leaving several journalists in the room and on the satellite feed from New York with their hands still raised. The cameras began to rush my way, prompting the staff to form a protective huddle around me. "She's already answered enough questions," scolded one of my attendants, shuttling me through the corridors with one hand on my elbow, the other pushing away television crews from Portugal, Japan, and Denmark.

"We have lots of interest in the Tea Party," she told me by way of apology -- and understatement.

For months, I have been observing the foreign fascination with the Tea Party movement -- a fascination as bemused as it is bewildered, as self-satisfied as it is horrified. On rare occasion, it reflects an understandable self-interest -- a reporter from Hong Kong wanted to know whether Tea Party sentiment might push the Republicans toward protectionist trade policies. Some have practical questions: How big is the movement? Who are its leaders? Others are struggling -- just like many Americans -- to put the Tea Party movement in context. A French reporter wanted to know, for example, whether you could compare the Tea Party to the conservative moralizing and strident anti-immigration platform of that country's Front National. And for many others, the question is simply: Is it really as extreme as it seems?

You can detect a note of hopefulness in the last question, which helps explain the central obsession with the Tea Party overseas: It has affirmed the love-hate relationship the rest of the world has with the United States. The questions foreigners ask and the assumptions they make often reveal a desire to affirm their biases about Americans -- their presumed lack of sophistication, their reflexive jingoism. The Tea Party, to them, is a sign that Americans could be really be as hopeless as they thought all along.

All those biases had been officially affirmed for eight years in the person of President George W. Bush, and then relieved by President Barack Obama, who quickly became the object of international infatuation. Obama got in trouble with the Tea Party types for going to Europe early in his presidency and, in the phrase of conservative commentators like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, "apologizing for America." (Like much of what the president said when he arrived promising to change the culture of Washington, the nuance got lost; while he allowed that the United States often "failed to appreciate Europe's leading role in the world," he also chided Europeans for their reflexive anti-Americanism.)

But to many in the rest of the world, a stylish young president was a sign that there might be hope for Americans after all. As Daniel Alling, a Swedish radio reporter, told me, "People want the U.S. to be [like] Obama: He's not overly patriotic, he's not talking about his Christian faith all the time, he talks about science." The Tea Party, on the other hand, "is the U.S. we don't want the U.S. to be," Alling said.

Having fallen so hard for Obama, foreigners now want to know, as a French reporter asked me in Washington, "How do you explain the downfall of the president?"

How could a man everyone around the world saw as a breath of fresh air be facing such opposition?

For many abroad, the answer comes down to an elitist sense of the American grotesque, something reinforced by the Tea Party movement's crazier fringes. Foreign audiences seem particularly interested in Christine O'Donnell, the Delaware Senate candidate who is best known for dabbling in witchcraft and public statements against masturbation. They care less that she has run for office before and that she is not so much a Tea Party creation as a vehicle for the movement to express its anger at the Republican establishment. They want to know about the "billionaires behind the Tea Party" -- an overly simplified view of the role of funders like the Koch brothers that suggests a wizard behind the curtain controlling the minds of Americans too stupid to think for themselves. Then there's the Tea Party candidate in Ohio, Rich Iott, who has spent weekends of the last several years dressing up as a Nazi with his friends. Really, who can resist?

"This finger-pointing at the kooky Americans, they love that," says Sebastian Moll, a German newspaper correspondent based in New York. "To Europeans, the Tea Party thing is evidence of cultural inferiority, which is one of those old deeply rooted anti-American sentiments: that the Americans have no political culture and are unsophisticated."

As Moll notes, what many foreigners believe about the Tea Party movement are the same "knee-jerk liberal clichés" embraced by its many critics in the United States. As an Australian reader confessed in an email to me, "I assumed the Tea Party was just a combination of Glenn Beck's tearful conspiracy tirades and various small groups of extremists and oddballs that provided entertainment for outlets like Fox News and the Daily Show.

But polls show that around 20 percent of Americans identify with the Tea Party movement -- even if only a much smaller percentage have actually attended a Tea Party rally or meeting. It has become as much a state of mind as a movement; people who have never been to a meeting or a rally now complain about out-of-control spending and government being too much in our lives.

This is not just true in off-the-grid Idaho or the Deep South; it's in supposedly liberal havens like New Jersey and Massachusetts. And most Tea Party supporters -- and their candidates -- do not spend a lot of time crusading against masturbation or dressing up as Joseph Goebbels.

But nor is the Tea Party as simple as the explanation offered to reporters by Mark Skoda, the barrel-chested, radio-voiced technology entrepreneur who served as the spokesman for the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville in February. "It's a way in which people are organizing, channeling their frustration about how the government's not listening," Skoda told a phalanx of foreign journalists who had arrived to cover the convention. "Elsewhere, people can't agitate for change. We're doing it peacefully, without bullets, without insults. We are taking our government back."

The foreign press took this largely at face value; Fabienne Sintes, a journalist with Radio-France, told me that while previously, she had trouble selling her editors on stories that described U.S. opposition to Obama, by the time the Tea Party convention gathered, the conventional wisdom had shifted.

"Before I had to adjust them, saying he is not walking on water," she told me. "Now I have to say, well, he's not dead yet."

It is true that the Tea Party movement started with frustration -- among conservatives who were out of power, and among people concerned about the growing national debt, the cratering of the economy, and the government's intervention to try to save it.

Liberals have appropriately asked why it did not start with President Bush, who turned the surplus into a deficit, not least by starting two wars. But the Tea Party supporters are mostly Republicans, and conservative ones, at that. When a president goes to war, they are inclined to support him. There is a libertarian core to the Tea Party that agrees with Ron Paul, the quirky congressman from Texas, about the need to reduce the United States' military presence around the world. But for the most part, this is a Support Our Troops crowd. They cheer Ron Paul when he talks about auditing the Federal Reserve and cutting spending, but he was booed at a Tax Day rally on April 15 when he began talking about the need to get our troops out of Korea and Japan.

Tea Partiers say they want to focus on economic conservatism, meaning that they don't spend a lot of time talking about other topics -- foreign policy, or social issues like gay marriage and abortion. But they do tend to define themselves as social conservatives, so it has been hard to completely ignore talk of faith or social issues. And while some Tea Party groups do not want to talk about immigration -- believing it too divisive -- for others it is a defining issue.

Still, the Tea Party is not as consumed with moral issues as France's Front National. Nor is its unifying mission the rabid Islamophobia of the English Defense League, as a recent BBC report suggested. And the Tea Party certainly does not resemble the current mass protests in France -- the Tea Partiers would align themselves with Sarkozy and David Cameron on cutting spending (if they bothered to think about policy beyond America's shores), just as they are with Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, as he takes on the teachers' unions. That said, Christie and Sarkozy, stylistically, have about as much in common as Marshmallow Fluff and aioli.

For as the United States has moved closer to a European model on health insurance, "Europe" has become a dirty word. ("Next thing you know they'll force us all to drive little European cars," one man in Grand Rapids, Michigan, told me, and you can bet he was thinking Yugo, not Porsche.) At rallies against health care, Tea Partiers held up the example of Greece to illustrate how a European welfare system would bankrupt the United States.

As the Tea Party looks likely to establish a sizeable presence in Congress, it will apply more pressure to cut spending -- including on Social Security and Medicare -- and to act on Republican promises to try to repeal the health-care legislation passed earlier this year.

None of this translates into Obama's downfall -- at least not yet. If anything, having an opposition to blame might help his campaign for re-election two years hence. Nor does the Tea Party movement necessarily signal the ascendancy of Sarah Palin -- another object of foreign fascination. Polls and focus groups show that many Tea Partiers are just like other Americans in this regard: They do not think her qualified to be president.

What the foreign press needs to understand is that the Tea Party movement is best understood as a conservative insurgency in a country that produces them in regular cycles. There are echoes of the Tea Party in the anti-tax protests of the 1970s and 80s, and in the Goldwater movement of the early 1960s. But that does not mean anyone -- foreign or otherwise -- can ignore it. The Tea Party may not have the numbers to take over the country, but it is not going away anytime soon.


The End of the Charm Offensive

China's neighbors welcome a strong China, just not a dominant one -- and that's where the United States comes in.

Later this week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will visit Hanoi to attend the East Asian Summit, a five-year-old forum that brings together top officials from 16 East and Southeast Asian countries to discuss the future of the region. Clinton is a "special guest" in Hanoi, and her presence at the gathering reflects anticipation that the United States will be invited to join the summit as a permanent member in 2011. As with most diplomatic moves in Asia these days, that prospective invitation is as much about China as it is about the United States, and it speaks to a stark underlying reality for Asia's rising superpower: Beijing's vaunted statesmanship in the region is reaching the point of diminishing returns.

China has successfully convinced its neighbors that it is a legitimate and indispensable rising power in Asia, and that this is on balance a good thing. China was welcomed as a founding member of the ASEAN Regional Forum -- the first region-wide multilateral discussion of security issues in Asia -- in 1994, and this year joined with neighboring countries in launching a multilateral currency swap arrangement with a foreign exchange reserve pool worth $120 billion. But whether those countries want a dominant China is another matter entirely. The era of picking low-hanging diplomatic fruit is almost over. Beijing's neighbors are beginning to look for ways to hedge against China's rise and even help restrain Beijing's strategic options -- and that means that they're looking at the United States' presence in the region with new eyes.

China, in fact, understands this dynamic much better than its Western hemispheric rival; the reality of enduring American strengths and significant Chinese weaknesses is better appreciated in Beijing than in Washington. China knows that American power and influence in Asia is based on two things: its military and economic pre-eminence and Washington's unmatched several-decade record of underwriting peace and prosperity in the region. The vast majority of Asian states welcome the presence of the U.S. Seventh Fleet -- critical support, as America's forward deployments depend heavily on their acquiescence and cooperation.

China, by contrast, may be the loneliest rising power in recent history. Other countries in the region may look forward to the economic opportunities presented by China's rise, but Beijing has few genuine or reliable allies. It remains distrusted by almost every maritime power in the region. Domestically, even China's Premier Wen Jiabao recognizes that China is a potentially unstable combination of a strong and rich state ruling over a poor and weak country.

Beijing's lead in forging regional free trade agreements has helped enhance its economic clout. But for China to translate its economic growth and size into political leverage, it will have to become the dominant center of consumption in Asia. For now, in absolute terms, China's domestic consumption is roughly on par with France's. Chinese GDP growth is largely driven by domestically funded fixed investment that frequently offers little or no return -- think empty buildings and little-used highways -- and exports. About half of China's much-hyped trade within Asia is processing, assembling products destined for American and European markets.

Foreign companies benefit from the ease of setting up manufacturing and assembly plants in China, the country's cheap labor, and its undervalued yuan. But there is also resentment about the fact that millions of manufacturing jobs in the region have been lost to China; Indonesia has voiced concerns that the China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement, activated in January, will devastate its garment and textiles industries. Until the appetites of Chinese consumers expand enough to create millions of jobs for regional workers, Beijing will find it difficult to extract political and strategic concessions from its neighbors.

Much of the problem has to do with the Chinese Communist Party's entrenched political economy, which holds down domestic consumption by directing economic gains to the few -- the state-controlled sector -- over the many, the burgeoning private sector. This means that income distribution in China has become the most unequal in all of Asia: While the income of the state-controlled sector has been growing at more than 10 percent a year over the past decade, household incomes have been improving by only 2-3 percent. Chinese state-sector procurement policies also follow rules that favor indigenous companies, making access to the most lucrative sector of the country's economy difficult for regional companies -- another grudge for neighbors to hold against the rising power.

Old habits have marred China's diplomatic forays as well. Despite impressive diplomacy over the past decade, Beijing has never given up its claims to disputed maritime territory in the East and South China Seas. Its reported statement that its claims in the latter are part of China's "core interests" is impolitic, but consistent with its long-term strategic ambitions: Beijing's strategy has been to ostensibly commit to the "peaceful resolution" of these issues while refusing to make serious attempts to actually resolve them. The result is widespread suspicion that a rising China is simply biding its time and will move on these contested claims when its political leverage is much more formidable.

While Asian states are generally comfortable with Washington's ongoing role as the preeminent security provider in Asia, they remain fearful that Beijing might well behave less benignly in the role of regional hegemon. Central to the rhetoric and self-image of the modern Communist Party is its claim that China will regain its status as Asia's "Middle Kingdom," the sort of bluntly hierarchical vision of regional geopolitics that neighbors tend not to be thrilled about. During a discussion of the South China Sea issue at a recent ASEAN meeting, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Liechi lost his temper, declaring that "China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact." It was a chilling reminder to the region that a dominant China might well behave differently than a territorially distant and democratic power such as the United States.

The result is that key regional states are not just hedging against China's rise but subtly bandwagoning with Washington in order to hem in Beijing's strategic options. Inviting the United States to join the East Asian Summit as a permanent member is just one illustration of this strategic dynamic; others include Seoul, Jakarta, and Hanoi eagerly agreeing to strengthen military ties with Washington over the past six months.

Secretary Clinton's upcoming tour of Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, and Australia thus comes at an opportune moment. The United States still needs to commit more manpower and ships to the region, and reassure the region's capitals that unlike China, its grand designs are limited to maintaining stability in Asia. But as the starter, simply showing up can sometimes work wonders.

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