During her speech to the first ever National Tea Party Convention in Nashville on Saturday, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin discouraged the very idea of a national organization, urging the movement to stay leaderless and decentralized. This was the most important and valuable part of Palin’s speech.
As for the rest of it–Sarah sounded pretty much like the same old Republican Party.
Despite the many independents that make up the movement, the tea parties in large part represent a long overdue reexamination of conservative principles. A big-spending Democratic president seems to have awakened grassroots conservatives enough to finally lament the big spending of the last Republican president, and plenty of incumbents from both parties face voter backlash in 2010 and possibly beyond, particularly if they supported bailouts, stimulus, national healthcare, or other massive debt-incurring legislation.
The tea partiers are right to acknowledge and denounce Bush’s big-government growth of Medicare, the implementation of No Child Left Behind, and Dubya’s other expansions of the domestic state. But what they still seem to forget is what made conservatives so tolerant of big government during that time—an almost religious preoccupation with supporting the Iraq War.
Today, defense spending remains the largest part of the federal budget, dwarfing the bailouts, stimulus, healthcare, and other government programs that offend tea partiers most, and President Obama is still expanding that budget and escalating our wars. One would think cost-conscious voters would at least question Obama’s wisdom in continuing Bush’s exorbitant foreign policy. Yet few tea partiers are asking such questions, and according to Palin, Obama’s primary weakness is that he’s not enough like George W. Bush.
Following up her tea party speech on “Fox News Sunday,” Palin said of Obama, “If he decided to toughen up and do all that he can to secure our nation and our allies, I think people would perhaps shift their thinking a little bit and decide, Well, maybe he’s tougher than …he is today, and there wouldn’t be as much passion to make sure that he doesn’t serve another four years.”
What is Palin trying to say? That tea party anger towards Obama would lessen if the president was to “toughen up,” becoming even more intent on waging war? Does Palin believe that the massive domestic spending conservatives don’t like would be tolerated so long as Obama increases the massive foreign spending conservatives do like? Isn’t this exactly what happened under Bush?
At a time when a more radicalized, grassroots conservative base could feasibly be persuaded to question government spending as a whole; Palin seems intent on leading the populist Right back into the same old, big government, pro-war, any-war mindset. Conservatives as thoughtful as columnist George Will and as bombastic as radio host Michael Savage have asked recently if American dollars and lives are worth spending in Afghanistan. But for Palin, still, there is no question.
The necessity of endless war and the gargantuan government needed to sustain it is also not in question for the neoconservatives. When uber-neocon Daniel Pipes wrote an article for National Review Online last week called “How to Save the Obama Presidency: Bomb Iran,” the alleged purpose of the piece was to give the commander in chief some pointers on how to keep his command in 2012. But make no mistake—Pipes’s main concern is that somebody bombs Iran, regardless of which president or party. Pat Buchanan responded to Pipes in his syndicated column, asking if Obama would indeed play what the Buchanan calls “the war card,” something presidents have done in the past to boost their popularity. The difference is, traditional conservative Buchanan was clearly chastising what the neoconservative Pipes was advocating—the U.S. waging war simply to boost a politician’s poll numbers.
But Palin didn’t make the distinction, telling Fox News, “Say [Obama] played, and I got this from Buchanan, reading one of his columns the other day. Say he played the war card. Say he decided to declare war on Iran… things would dramatically change if he decided to toughen up and do all that he can to secure our nation…”
If the tea parties are supposed to represent a break from the big spending of both parties, Palin’s foreign policy views alone negate the entire tea party message. If the largest part of the U.S. budget—defense—is to be expanded indefinitely in the name of “toughness,” how can grassroots conservatives argue against bailouts, stimulus, and national healthcare, each of which costs much less? Real “toughness” might include not just using the same old Bush jargon, but a serious cost/benefit analysis of the U.S.’s habit of putting soldiers in harm’s way halfway around the globe for no discernible reason—while just mindlessly assuming our government has America’s best interests at heart.
Above all, real conservative “toughness” might require a real questioning of government at all levels. Unfortunately, conservatives whose attachment to the warfare state remains every bit as passionate as liberals’ attachment to the welfare state, continue to prove they have no serious intention of dismantling big government–only making noise about it. Just like Sarah Palin.