I attended the Cincinnati Tax Day Tea Party rally as a speaker. But it was more interesting to be an observer.
First, here’s what I didn’t see. I didn’t see a single racist or bigoted sign or hear a single such comment. Nor did I see any evidence of “homegrown fascism.” Though in fairness, such things are often in the eye of the beholder, now that dissent has gone from being the highest form of patriotism under George W. Bush to the most common form of racism under Barack Obama.
But I did see something a lot of people, on the left and the right, seemed to have missed: a delayed Bush backlash. One of the more widespread anti-tea party arguments goes like this: Republicans didn’t protest very much when Bush ran up deficits and expanded government, so when Obama does the same thing (albeit on a far grander scale), Republican complaints can’t be sincere.
This lazy sophistry opens the door to liberals’ preferred argument: racism. “No student of American history,” writes Paul Butler in the New York Times, “would be surprised to learn that when the United States elects its first non-white president, a strong anti-government movement rises up.” Butler, a law professor and the author of the no-doubt-seminal “Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice,” speaks for many in the media when he insinuates that nearly unprecedented stimulus spending combined with government takeovers of the healthcare, banking and automotive industries are dwarfed in importance by Obama’s skin color.
I speak for many who have actually spoken to tea partyers when I say that is slanderous hogwash.
But how, then, to explain the relative right-wing quiescence on Bush’s watch and the fiscal Puritanism on Obama’s?
No doubt partisanship plays a role. But partisanship explains only so much, given that the tea partyers are clearly sincere about limited government and fond of GOP bashing. So here’s an alternative explanation: Conservatives don’t want to be fooled again.
Recall that Bush promised to be a “different kind of conservative,” and one of his first legislative victories was the No Child Left Behind Act, sponsored by Teddy Kennedy. Throughout his presidency, Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” surrendered to the assumptions of welfare state liberalism, i.e. that your decency was best measured by your commitment to large, inefficient government programs. “When somebody hurts,” Bush insisted, “government has to move.”
Many conservatives disliked this whole mind-set and the policies behind it, from comprehensive immigration reform to Medicare Part D.
But given the charged climate after the 2000 Florida recount and 9/11, many conservatives muted their objections, in part because they liked the man personally or because they approved of his stances on tax cuts, judges, abortion and, most important, the war on terror. Conservatives didn’t necessarily bite their tongues, but they did prioritize supporting Bush over fighting too hard for ideological purity.
The 2008 GOP primaries compounded conservative frustration. Because there was no stand-in for Bush in the contest, there was no obvious outlet for anger at Bush’s pre-surge Iraq bungling or his decision to outsource domestic spending to GOP congressional ward-heelers. Then, as a lame duck, Bush laid down the predicates for much of Obama’s first 100 days, supporting a stimulus and Wall Street bailouts.
According to last week’s New York Times/CBS poll of tea party supporters, 57% have a favorable view of Bush, but that hardly captures the nuance of tea party feelings. For instance, when Bush’s face appeared on the Jumbotron in the arena, the Cincinnati audience applauded. When speakers blasted Bush and the GOP for “losing their way,” the audience applauded even louder.
Going by what I saw in Cincinnati, second to their profound desire to rein in government, the chief attitude driving the 39% of tea partyers who describe themselves as “very conservative” isn’t partisanship, racism or seizing the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia. It’s “we won’t be fooled again.” In the near term, that spells trouble for Democrats. In the long term, that lays down a serious gauntlet for Republicans.