February 8, 2010
Sarah Palin and the Tea Party ZeitgeistBy C. Edmund Wright
While Barack Obama remains obsessed with George W. Bush, Sarah Palin hardly acknowledged his existence in Nashville at the Tea Party convention. Her "back to the future" vision for America skipped right over all the Bush years and went back to the principles of Ronald Reagan.
That was perfectly appropriate for the Tea Party convention. It is the zeitgeist of the movement.
The "kinder, gentler, compassionate conservatism" of Bushes 41 and 43 brought deeply flawed big-spending concepts that have become confusing distractions. Those twelve years of drift -- surrounding Newt Gingrich's forcing Bill Clinton to govern from the right -- have allowed liberals to blur issues and blame the failure of big government on conservatism. Ironic, isn't it? How's that new tone working out again, Mr. Rove?
Not so well. Too many independents fell for the spin and assumed that the Republican brand forever meant the undefined Bush mush. This confusion and a teleprompter helped folks conclude that Obama was a reasonable, articulate, and super-intelligent post-partisan and post-racial pragmatist.
For Sarah Palin and many others, the Tea Party movement is precisely about reversing all of that nonsense. Thus, in this context, Bush Republicanism must be ignored and replaced. Talk of a third party must be swatted aside. The imminent threat is the liberal agenda, period.
Palin clearly tied the movement and the future of the country to an embrace of the Constitution and the principles of Reagan. She sees a conservative ascendancy within the GOP. The former governor also made it clear that the movement is about ideas, not about self-indulgent would-be leaders.
On these foundational templates, Palin's vision of the movement is consistent with Rush Limbaugh's and Mark Levin's -- and not so much in line with Glenn Beck's or Mike Huckabee's.
While dismissing loyalty to party for party's sake, Palin's vision of the future is clearly one where limited-government proponents win primaries leading up to the midterms of 2010. With a clear rejection of the "both parties are equally bad" dogma, she is referring to Republican primaries.
Let's be honest: No limited-government types are likely to win Democrat primaries, and no third-party movement -- or fifty-third-party movement -- is going to remove Nancy Pelosi from the Speaker's office. Period. Learn it, live it, love it.
It was no accident that the most repeated name of the evening was Reagan. Palin's philosophy was about 98% Reagan -- with an awkward smidgeon of populist anger towards Wall Street, plus an unnerving repetition of the phrase "putting government on the side of the people" thrown in. Obviously she was trying to tie the angst with Wall Street to crony capitalism via "Washington picking winners and losers." She also once mentioned wanting "government out of the way." But she was not as clear on these as she needs to be. She has to iron this out, given all the misleading talk of populism floating around.
Liberal Populism versus Conservative Populism
While populism is generally about protecting the good little guy from the bad big guy, definitions of the "bad guy" vary between the liberals and conservatives. Since the media and some gutless corporate CEOs are all too willing to obfuscate the differences, it is critical that conservatives clarify.
There is no doubt that Palin was preaching a conservative brand of populism -- as in the anti-government and anti-crony capitalism -- yet it was also a pro-free market type of populism. Here, the bad guy is big government, along with any business that cuts a market-perverting deal with government. Memo to Goldman Sachs, GM, and Chrysler.
It is important that people understand the difference between free-market populism and the liberal populist message, which is anti-business and promotes government as the pristine and impartial protector of the people from big powerful business interests. This kind of mindset inevitably leads to inside deals, which must be covered up with populist demagoguery.
Consider the health care debate.
Liberals said that objections to Obamacare were just a ginned up fabrication of big insurance and big pharma -- all the while cutting backroom deals with big insurance and big pharma. That's liberal populist demagoguery and crony capitalism at work simultaneously!
It is vital that Palin becomes stronger and more cogent on this than she was Saturday. As we know, the bumbling, fumbling, non-ideological McCain campaign served only to muddy these issues.
The Idea from the Start
Moreover, the very genesis of the Tea Party movement is based on this principle. Last February, little-known Rick Santelli made a fabulous rant on seldom-watched CNBC about the failure of Fannie and Freddie -- and how it led to Obama wanting all good mortgage-payers to bail out the irresponsible mortgage-borrowers. He also slammed the union payoff by way of the Big Three auto makers' bailout.
Santelli threatened to hold a "Chicago Tea Party" on behalf of responsible citizens who pay their mortgages and -- GASP! -- take care of themselves. The issue went mainstream only because Rush and The Drudge Report featured it.CNBC's ratings went through the roof, and Santelli became a household name before Robert Gibbs implicitly threatened him by saying "we know where you live." The Obama-loving NBC suits made Santelli back off, but the idea started a firestorm across the nation that now engulfs many -- even many unaware of how it all started.
And now, in just under a year, the Tea Party movement has advanced to the point where it is considered the most dynamic and powerful political movement in the country today. While some Tea Partygoers are hung up on single issues like TARP or immigration or AIG bonuses or even NAFTA, they are in the minority. Not everyone holds passions consistent with the Santelli inspiration or with Palin's emphasis, but it is beyond debate that the heart of the movement is a conservative, pro-business, pro-self-reliance, anti-big government sentiment.
And with this maturation of the movement and its new place in the spotlight, more message coherence is going to be needed. It cannot be all things to all people forever, though some of that dynamic was no doubt instrumental in some of the early large crowds.
Palin is the most natural leader of this leaderless-by-design movement. Her keynote speech was a good -- but not great -- start to the philosophical distillation process necessary. This movement is all about the Constitution, and the most recent historically successful manifestation of this thinking was the Reagan Revolution. Palin instinctively understands that and made that clear. This is good.
This movement was also definitely part of Scott Brown's victory, even if Brown avoided the terms "Tea Party" and "Palin" for tactical reasons in liberal Massachusetts. This did not escape her, as she spoke several times of Brown's win as part of the war against the "Obama-Pelosi-Reid agenda," a war Brown surely has enlisted himself in.
Piggybacking on Brown, Palin deftly added to the movement a revulsion to the childish political correctness that is infecting our efforts in the war on terror. As Palin quoted from Reagan, the only position acceptable is "we win, they lose." This fits perfectly with the movement and with Brown.
All in all, it was a good night for Palin personally, and for conservatives and lovers of the Constitution in general.