Fighting jihadist terror and being at war with Islam are, of course, two different things that can remain distinct from each other. The Bush and Obama administrations both went to great efforts to try to make it possible to maintain this distinction. Nonetheless, official statements that the US is not fighting against all of Islam and even the reality that Muslims enjoy more religious freedom in the US than in almost any other country in the world, something which both Presidents Bush and Obama have pointed out while in office, will be very easily overshadowed if this Islamic Center is not allowed to be built now. It has become almost a cliché to point out that the current Republican Party would have rejected Dwight Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan for being too liberal, but the debate over the Islamic Center suggests that they would reject George W. Bush on these grounds as well.
As a political phenomenon, the Tea Partiers are more colorful than mysterious. They are not really a new or post-party phenomenon, but are the latest incarnation of the populist conservative wing of the Republican Party, the political descendants of Richard Nixon's Silent Majority or the angry white men who catapulted Newt Gingrich and the Republican Party into control of the Congress in 1994. Tea Partiers will vote overwhelmingly for the Republican Party in November, or they will stay home. Very few will vote Democratic; and third party rumblings that have not yet died away, will do so in the next months.
The question this data raises is, so what? What is the value of Obama and his policies being more popular than his foes or his allies, particularly in a political system where Obama needs 60 Senate votes to accomplish anything? If Obama continues the strategic approach he used in his first year, including a willingness to bargain too early in the negotiating process, refusing to pressure Democrats in Congress -- particularly the Senate -- to support the party's position, and never going on the offensive against an aggressive Republican leadership, his popularity will not help him. However, popularity, particularly when it is bolstered by support for policies, can be an important asset to a president if it is used well.
Republican talking points comparing the upcoming 2010 midterm elections with those in 1994 are, on the surface, somewhat persuasive. The basic Republican argument is that in both 1992 and 2008, a Democratic President and Congress was swept into power; in both 1993 and 2009 that Democratic President spent an awful lot of time on health care; we didn't like Clinton; and we don't like Obama. This outline is filled in with references to Democratic extremism, socialism and perhaps most absurdly, the alleged failure of the Obama administration to reach out to Republicans.
If anybody was so hopeful that they believed that the Republican Party leadership did not like the level of nastiness we have seen in recent months, they must now abandon that hope. It is hard to imagine that had a Democratic member of either house of Congress shouted "you lie" at President Bush during an address to congress in 2007-2008 we would have heard silence from Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid of the kind we have heard from the Republican leadership. Importantly, while it can be argued, although probably wrongly, that the anti-Obama fervor is no worse than the anti-Bush feelings of a few years ago, it cannot be argued that the two parties have engaged in this rhetoric in the same way.
The debate within the Democratic Party over health care reform generally, and the public option specifically, raises several bigger questions about the party. These questions predate the health care debate, but the controversy surrounding the extent of the Democratic Party's commitment to extend health care to as many Americans as possible brings this into sharp focus. If the Democrats do not pass a meaningful health care bill, with a public option it will be hard to answer the question of what the purpose of the Democratic Party is.