While reading about the Tea Party activists as radical rightists, I had the sense that these critics and I see the world very differently. The New York Times and then the Lancaster papers, on April 16, released polling data that offers a revealing picture of these activists. Most of them believe that their current share of taxation is “fair” and they watch Fox-news as their major source of information. 57% of those responding to last month’s New York Times poll believe that George W. Bush was an excellent president, and an even higher percentage identifies itself as Republican. Most of those interviewed are also high on social security and Medicare. The fact that most of them are at least middle-aged may help explain their predilection for these entitlements.
With due respect to the New York Times’ characterization of these activists on April 15 as “driven more by ideology than financial anxieties,” what I’m seeing here are middle-aged Republicans. They seem to belong to a Republican offensive, featuring such now conventional Republicans as Sarah Palin and retreads from the Bush administration, who are being presented as anti-government revolutionaries. Karl Rove has been conveniently reinvented for Tea Party gatherings, as a political outsider, and lest former Bush-McCain supporters act out of turn, FOX is there to coach them.
A difference between these Tea Parties and even such a modest event as the transition from Ford to Reagan is the lack of any changing of the guard. When Reagan ran for president, he let it be known that under no circumstances would he appoint those who were responsible for the foreign policy of the Nixon-Ford administration. Reagan was on record rejecting the Nixon-Kissinger policy of détente with the Soviets, and he stressed that he was breaking from what he considered Republican politics as usual.
It would be nice if the Tea Party activists insisted on such a break. But of course they won’t because for the most part they are McCain-Bush supporters or else Democrats, who are upset with Obama’s health care plan. In his syndicated column (April 22), Jonah Goldberg has addressed the charge that the Tea Party activists are Republicans by another name. Some of their critics have noticed the Tea Partiers were not up in arms when Bush expanded the federal sector; and this has been interpreted to mean they are Republicans in eighteenth-century wigs. Contrary to this opinion, Goldberg argues that the Tea Partiers represent a “delayed George Bush backlash.” These people put up with Bush because he was attacked from the left. “Besides, where were conservatives supposed to go [in the 2004 election]? Into the arms of John Kerry?”
Although Goldberg now subscribes to the view that Bush and “Republican ward-heelers” opened the door for Obama and the Democrats by mismanaging the federal government, neither he nor Byron York of the Washington Examiner, whom he quotes in his column, took much time off from slamming the Democrats to go after Bush as a disguised liberal. In fact the GOP media were downright nasty to rightwing critics of Bush who failed to support his war policy. And FOX, which employs Goldberg and York, took the lead in applying this policy of exclusion, before it began to coach the Tea Partiers.
Even more importantly, Goldberg fails to explain Bush’s continued popularity among the majority of the small-government advocates aligned against the Obama administration. If these activists were engaged in a backlash against Bush as well as Obama, why do they continue to praise Bush while castigating his successor? And if they are really saying a plague on both your houses, why does a majority continue to identify itself as Republican?
What are at issue here are two different conceptions of the welfare state, both with rival advocates. The Tea Partiers favor a massive welfare state, providing that entitlements are aimed at them. They oppose the increased use of revenues and above all, the increase of taxes to finance a different welfare state, one designed to accommodate low-income minorities, government workers, and amnestied illegal aliens.
These are the groups that are likely to benefit most from the present Democratic revamping of the public sector. They are also groups that will propel Democratic victories in the future; and what such legislation as national health care, and the bill to amnesty illegals, now under congressional consideration, will do is create a more solidified Democratic constituency. But the Tea Party advocates on the other side are not small-government Republicans. They are the rivals of the Obamaites for welfare state favors. But as Pat Buchanan and my colleague Wes McDonald have both noticed, the result of this rivalry has been to ignite ethnic and social tensions. Different groups are fighting for government services and payments; and the fallout may become nasty. None of this should surprise a perceptive critic of our democratic welfare state. Such a gift-bearing regime always lands up producing squabbles among the gift-recipients.