LOS ANGELES—Larry Elder, a black conservative columnist and Tea Party speaker, has a piece out titled "Tea Party: Why the Left Doesn't Get It," which unintentionally reveals the intellectual inconsistency of the Tea Party.
For liberals the question about the Tea Party concerns the timing of its origin: February 2009. Where, they ask, were these self-declared deficit hawks when George W. Bush and his Republican Congress turned Bill Clinton's budget surplus into record deficits? Where were these advocates of small government when Bush hired the biggest roster of federal employees in history and created a new federal department—the Department of Homeland Security?
"As to Bush's non-defense, non-homeland security domestic spending, [right-wing] people did complain—lots of them and frequently," Elder points out. And he's right. There was grumbling. But there weren't anti-Bush rallies, much less guys showing up at presidential appearances brandishing weapons. "Better late than never," Elder lamely retorts.
Another right-wing columnist, Jonah Goldberg, goes so far as to call the Tea Party "a delayed Bush backlash." But 57 percent of Tea Partiers say they like Bush.
On most of the policies Tea Partiers claim to deplore—deficit spending, expansive government, the bank bailouts—President Barack Obama is identical to Bush. The only difference between the two men is the color of their skin. Which makes lefties think anti-Obama racism is the Tea Party's true driving force.
As Paul Butler wrote in The New York Times: "No student of American history would be surprised to learn that when the United States elects its first non-white president, a strong anti-government movement rises up."
"Slanderous hogwash," Goldberg calls the racism charge. If not racism, then what? Stupidity. Or at least intellectual dishonesty.
Elder's qualifier that righties didn't like "Bush's non-defense, non-homeland security domestic spending" is revealing. Bush's two wars and tax cuts for the wealthy will account for 70 percent of the federal deficit over the next 10 years, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. (Obama's bailouts will cost 5 percent.)
My leftie friends find the Tea Party frustrating. They applaud Tea Partiers' distrust of government, their willingness to express their grievances. Progressives also find much to like in Tea Partiers' calls for a return to core values embodied by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. But only in theory.
The Tea Party's selective approach to constitutional purity and small government is appalling. They're loud and proud when it comes to the right to own guns, yet oppose or remain silent when it comes to the right of gays to marry whomever they want. They decry government intrusion in the form of health-care reform, but have nothing to say about the fact that the NSA is listening to their phone calls. They complain about illegal immigrants but not about the corporations that hire them.
If the Tea Party is to emerge as a force in American politics, it will need a coherent platform with broad appeal. Otherwise, the Tea Party will be remembered as the latest incarnation of the nativist white wing of the GOP (c.f. "angry white males" circa 1995).