Normally, the charge of lunacy is a bit ad hominem for these pages. But, what if the charge of lunacy is actually exculpatory, like a plea of temporary insanity at a murder trial? I raise the issue because a large number of Tea Party folk, who descended upon Washington yesterday to commemorate tax day, are either a little bit looney or they are a whole lot evil. You be the judge.
On Chris Matthews’ "Hardball" last night, Chris interviewed two leaders of the movement, one younger and the other older, both articulate about their concerns and points of view. In fact, there was one point where Matthews seemed to think he had one of them cornered. In discussing health care reform, the Tea Party spokesman objected to the mandate, saying it was constitutional to tax but it was unconstitutional to mandate that a citizen buy what he deemed "a consumer good." Matthews went in for the kill, asking if he would support a single payer system in which the government would collect tax dollars and pay for all health care. The Tea Party spokesman saw the trap and responded coolly that while the a single payer system avoided that particular constitutional issue, it raised other concerns. Very measured. Very thoughtful.
And, then Chris asked about the President birth certificate and a new New York Times poll that showed 30 percent of Tea Party folk said they did not believe President Obama was born in the United States and another 29 percent said they did not know. The man said that he was not himself a birther, that he thought there were more important things to be discussing, but he couldn’t quite finish without adding that the White House could have cleared all this up by releasing the documents for which people were asking. Busted: This man is a birther. The state of Hawaii has shown Obama’s birth certificate. The press unearthed a notice in the local newspaper announcing baby Obama’s birth at the time. If that does not satisfy someone, they are willfully in error, be the root of that error mere craziness or mere evil.
"I just feel he’s getting away from what America is," Kathy Mayhugh, 67, a retired medical transcriber in Jacksonville told the Times. "He’s a socialist. And to tell you the truth, I think he’s a Muslim and trying to head us in that direction, I don’t care what he says. He’s been in office over a year and can’t find a church to go to. That doesn’t say much for him." This has a different, dare we say a darker, tone to it than is the norm in political debate.
This darker perspective has begun to extend to a view of Obama’s policies. Jerry Johnson, a 58-year old lawyer from Berryville, Va., told the Washington Post: "We can’t run our households like the government’s running the country. That, and the idea of people [sitting] around on their butts. Fifty percent of the people collecting a check are paying no taxes, while the other 50 pull the wagon." Apart from being factually untrue – if someone collects a check, they are paying payroll taxes on the very first dollar – there is a resentment here, not of the rich, but of poor folk, not the "deserving poor" who these fine Christians know they should support with their charity, but the "undeserving poor." If you are old enough to recall Ronald Reagan’s invocation of "welfare queens," as if anyone living on welfare actually lived like royalty, you can recognize such sentiments for the simple stoking of racial hatred they entail.
In some ways, Tea Partyers are just like the rest of us. They are opposed to more government spending, but they do not support cutting Social Security or Medicare, the two entitlements that are causing the lion’s share of projected government debt. They are opposed to the health care bill, although cutting the overall cost of what the nation spends on health care is the only way to solve the government’s fiscal woes. And, they feel that they are not represented in Washington, which sounds to me like a recognition that they lost the last election.
I am looking forward to the comments, to the justification for the Tea Party crowd, to the attempts to cloak their arguments with legitimacy and their hatreds with the kind of context that makes it less repulsive. But, a word to the wise on the right: Conservatism is better than this. If American politics is to remain healthy, it needs a healthy conservative voice. This is not it. This is the John Birch Society updated for a new century. The most important thing the conservative movement – and the Republican Party – needs is someone with the courage to take on the Tea Partyers. The Democratic Party was tainted by its association with Jim Crow until Harry Truman took on the racist wing of his own party and, in a moment of political courage, let the Dixiecrats walk out of the Democratic National Convention. George H. W. Bush took on the free market idolators in his own party and passed a tax reform bill that helped shore up the nation’s finances for more than a decade. Someone in the Republican Party needs to have the courage of his or her convictions and call out the hatefulness that is driving too many of the Tea Partyers.