LAS VEGAS, Nevada — By most measures, Las Vegas looks the same. You drive into town and see glitzy billboards announcing shows such as Celine Dion at Caesar's Palace.
But it's a time of stress and change here, as it is in America's economy –– and on our political scene.
Like everywhere, Vegas grapples with the dream-killing recession. Less spending means less gambling and fewer big bucks.
At an apartment complex five minutes from the strip, you see six shiny mopeds parked in a row — owned by 20 and 30 somethings to cut down on gas costs ("I get 80 miles to a gallon," one tells me).
Some casinos attract people back by offering "retro" slot machines where you hear the metallic drop of real coins. Vegas' biggest hope: increasingly popular casino "party pits" that create a kind of gamblers' Disneyland experience.
But Vegas' biggest allure remains its slogan: "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." Let your hair down. Follow your gut. No one will know (or care) providing you behave within certain limits. Chuck your inhibitions. Going with your emotions won't hurt anyone.
You have to wonder if Vegas' slogan has become a symbol of today's GOP. In reverse.
What happened in the Republican Party didn't stay in the Republican Party.
The Tea Party bubbled over during the 2010 elections. Its scalding resentment-brew transformed the tone of politics, drowning some moderate Republicans.
Its new members' no-compromise-mix flavored Congress' handing (or non-handling) of the debt ceiling limit crisis, inspiring the phrase "political hostage taking," where the country could be ruined if one inflexible side didn't get its way.
Many believe a Standard & Poor's bigwig all but spelled out "T-e-a P-a-r-t-y" in assessing blame for his company's downgrade of the U.S. due to Tea Party members either, indicating it was no big deal if the U.S. defaulted –– or that it might be a good thing if it did. Some Republicans then distanced themselves from their own past statements as quickly as Barack Obama running into Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
It turned out that Tea Party rhetoric may have had more weight than Rush Limbaugh (Limbaugh's words, that is) after all.
In the Iowa Ames straw poll, the pro-default Michele Bachmann short-circuited former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a tepid candidate who unsuccessfully downplayed his moderate past. And Iowa provided a moment that will live on in Democratic Party campaign ads at all levels throughout 2012:
At the Republican Party's debate, when asked by a Fox News questioner, all 8 candidates raised their hands to say they would refuse a deficit deal having 10 times as many spending cuts as revenue hikes.
A junior high school teacher couldn't even get that kind of unanimity, if she asked her class: "Who wants a lav pass?"
According to The Hill, academic political experts and several polls suggest the no taxes or else Tea Party's heyday is over, and it's turning off independent voters. The Wall Street Journal has expressed concern about Bachmann and Texas Governor Rick Perry in a general election.
Meanwhile, Karl Rove issued a thinly disguised plea for his party to puh-leaze nominate someone for 2012 who is electable.
But the Tea Party's biggest impact has been on compromise. Obama dragged many liberals kicking and screaming to compromise, but now they see there are tangible rewards for those who absolutely refuse to do so.
Pity the next Republican President.
A popular game here in Vegas is craps. These days you can't but help think that "craps" in its singular best describes our politics now, because what happens in one political party doesn't stay in one political party.
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist, who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He has appeared on cable news show political panels and is Editor-in-Chief of The Moderate Voice, an Internet hub for independents, centrists and moderates. CNN's John Avlon named him as one of the top 25 Centrists Columnists and Commentators. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.