U.S. Voters Grab Beers, Pop Emergency Chute: Margaret Carlson

The message is loud and clear, if not cogent or consistent. The Category 4 hurricane hit as predicted on Election Day and never let up. It’s hard to remember when so many politicians have been blown away at once.

Few of the losers could have been surprised. No members of Congress seeking re-election had publicly put their houses on the market, although a few real-estate agents told me they fielded calls.

The storm proved the anti-incumbent, anti-establishment fervor was real, deep and lasting. It ended up benefiting Republicans not because they offered any great promise or confidence-inspiring record, but simply because they are the party out of power. The closest thing to a primal scream this year was casting votes against Democrats.

American voters became Steven Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant.

Slater, you’ll recall, became insta-famous when he cursed out a passenger over the intercom system at the end of a flight, popped the emergency chute, grabbed some beers from the galley and slid to freedom. In kissing his job goodbye, he stuck it to The Man -- or so it must have seemed to the thousands of Facebook users who swiftly signed up as “fans.”

For a few weeks there, Slater probably could have started a career in elective politics, appealing to all those voters fed up with the system.

Closer Look

As time went on, it became clear that Slater was at least as much to blame as the passenger he said had set him off. By the time he pleaded guilty to attempted criminal mischief, the bloom was off the rose.

In that, too, Slater seemed to embody U.S. politics in 2010. The Tea Party movement succeeded in turning several little-known local politicians into national stars, at least until voters got a closer look.

Just as Slater faltered under examination, so did Christine O’Donnell, the not-a-witch, anti-masturbation Delaware Republican whose primary victory hijacked her party’s great chance at picking up Vice President Joe Biden’s old Senate seat. Even Karl Rove had a hard time accepting her. She lost last night, big.

Rand Paul was luckier. The newly elected senator from Kentucky, who last night celebrated the “Tea Party tidal wave,” withstood the revelations about his unconventional views, notably his odd sense that hard-won civil-rights laws in the 1960s somehow overreached by intruding on private business’s right to discriminate. Perhaps he can grab a seat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which would give him a chance to elaborate.

Strange Bedfellows

The anomaly of election 2010 is how the Tea Party, full of voters who lost jobs in the economic collapse and are trying to rework mortgages the bank can’t find the paperwork for, aligned itself with the party that will add $3 trillion to the federal debt over 10 years to keep tax cuts for the wealthy, without specific offsetting spending cuts to speak of.

Yet the big winners in this Year of the Tea Party include Senator-elect Pat Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, a fiscal elitist of the first order who believes if the folks at the top get theirs, others will get theirs eventually -- leaving out the part that eventually we’ll all be dead.

And the biggest winner is, of all people, John Boehner, the Ohio Republican who will be the next speaker of the House.

Bank Bailout

Remember how Utah Senator Robert Bennett got cut down by the Tea Party movement at his party’s convention last spring, ostensibly for voting for the bank-bailout program known as TARP? That was a milestone moment in the Republican Party’s transformation into the anti-bailouts-for-banks party, even though the bailout was approved under a Republican president, George W. Bush.

Yes, Bennett voted for TARP in 2008. But so did Boehner. More than that, Boehner pleaded with his Republican colleagues on the House floor to join him, warning the U.S. was on the “brink of an economic disaster” and declaring it time to “look into our souls.”

Thank goodness for the John Boehner of 2008, for outgoing Senator Bennett, and for others who cast that difficult vote. It’s little consolation to Democrats today, but their unpopular actions -- including TARP and the deficit-widening economic stimulus -- saved the U.S. economy. Perhaps only Clarence from “It’s a Wonderful Life” could have helped President Barack Obama, showing voters how much worse things could have been without him.

Capital’s Lure

In the end, Obama and Democrats weren’t able to carry out their promised change in Washington quickly enough. Perhaps this new group may actually be the ones to change the capital; if history is a guide, the capital will change them.

Aides will whisper in their ears; their cars will purr at the curb. To kick-start their re-election fund-raising machine immediately, they’ll have to turn to the lobbyists of K Street, which will serve their roast beef rare and their martinis dry.

They’ll find that cozying up to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell pays dividends -- good committee assignments, a close-in parking space -- that you can’t get by hanging out with the guy who brung them: backbench Senator Jim DeMint.

Come to think of it, I don’t think I heard any of these supposed outsiders promise term limits.

(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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