Here's my first impression of the tea party movement: It's a rabidly right-wing phenomenon with a shaky grasp of history, a strain of intolerance and xenophobia, a paranoia about Barack Obama, and an unhealthy reverence for Fox News. Any movement that doesn't firmly exclude Birchers, birthers, and Islamaphobes is not a movement for me.
Here's my second impression of the tea party movement: We are lucky to have it.
That's because the tea partiers, who may not all agree on gay marriage or birthright citizenship, are united behind a couple of sound goals: curtailing the cost of government and refusing to live at the expense of future generations. Those are goals that, for eight years, had many rhetorical supporters in Washington, but few authentic champions.
Blame that on George W. Bush, who arrived billing himself as a compassionate conservative, a description that was accurate except for the adjective and the noun. Whatever his ideology, his policy was to expand federal spending at a rate unseen since President Lyndon Johnson, the architect of the Great Society.
He didn't do it alone, though. Had Bush been a Democrat, Republicans would have fought his budget plans at every turn. But since he was one of theirs, they joined in the spree with gusto, even as they cut taxes and piled up deficits.
The prevailing attitude was: Live it up now, and let someone else worry about paying for it later. Budget hawks were left wondering what happened to Republican tightwads, who thought every dollar spent by the government was a dollar that had to be justified as a vital necessity.
The tea partiers were dismayed to see these penny-pinchers replaced by poll-driven insiders with an appetite for earmarks. That's one big reason hard-right candidates have scored so many upsets in recent GOP Senate primaries—including Rand Paul in Kentucky, Sharron Angle in Nevada, Joe Miller in Alaska, and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware.
They didn't get nominated because they look and sound like the popular image of a savvy, experienced, well-informed, practical-minded U.S. senator. They got nominated because they don't.
They are often accused of craziness—one MSNBC commentator said Angle "sounds like a mental patient." But to the tea partiers, that's not a bug; it's a feature. If a $1.4 trillion federal budget deficit represents sanity, they would prefer a candidate who escaped from the psych ward.
These outsiders profited from a belief that established ways of doing things have led us off a cliff, as well as a widespread alarm at fiscal excess. This combination was neatly, though crudely, captured by Carl Paladino, who won the Republican nomination for governor of New York, in his promise to "take a baseball bat to Albany."
Paladino vowed to kill the Islamic center near Ground Zero by using the state's eminent domain power to seize the property—not exactly a small-government approach. With his incendiary rhetoric and fondness for racist jokes, he exemplifies the ugly side of the movement. But he would not have won the primary without his demand to curb public employee unions and slash state spending.
Conservatives are sometimes accused of being more interested in finding heretics than converts. Tea partiers offer a wrinkle on that. They are determined to root out RINOs (Republicans in Name Only), who they think have betrayed the party's economic principles. But in their own ranks, they seem happy to have everyone with an aversion to the enlargement of government, no matter how crackpot they may be on other issues.
Back in the 1990s, there was a cranky, conspiracy-minded Texas billionaire who had nightmares about free trade with Mexico and imagined that fixing government was as simple as fixing a car. Like Angle and Paladino, Ross Perot sometimes sounded as though he had gone off his meds.
But railing against budget deficits, he captured a staggering 19 percent of the vote as a third-party candidate in the 1992 presidential race against George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The movement he inspired helped force Democrats and Republicans in Washington to restrain expenditures, balance the federal budget, and generally stop acting as though there was no tomorrow.
It would be a great thing if sensible, temperate, consistently libertarian citizens would mobilize en masse to force similar changes today. Until then, the tea party will have to do.
This column previously appeared at Reason.com.
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