What Would the Tea Party Do?

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The Tea Party movement is premised on love for the Constitution. Activists carry a pocket-size copy of the document to underscore their commitment to a strict application of its wise words. They believe that the policies President Obama is putting in place trample on the Constitution and sacrifice American individuality and ingenuity on the altar of a misplaced view of social justice. With Obama getting hit from all sides on his response to the oil spill, it’s time to ask how a government based on Tea Party principles would cope with the assault on America’s way of life in the gulf region.

The Founding Fathers never envisioned dealing with a hole in the bottom of the ocean causing such havoc that the president would feel compelled to get directly involved in stemming the leak and adjudicating whatever claims might arise. Judging from remarks made Wednesday in Washington by Tea Party adviser and booster Republican Dick Armey, Obama’s demand that BP pony up $20 billion (one year’s worth of profits) for a fund to compensate victims of the spill is so out of line with the Constitution that it’s another cardinal sin against the liberty and freedom of the populist movement aligned on the right against big government in Washington.

Armey says there’s nothing in the Constitution that permits a president to decide what compensation should be elicited from a private corporation and how that money is distributed. Invoking the sanctity of property rights, Armey said if damage is done, “you call your lawyer and we’ll settle this in the courts.” Still, the deal Obama struck does not foreclose separate court action brought by individuals or states, and hiding behind the Constitution to defend the rights of lawyers to an even bigger share of the pie will be about as popular with the voters as Tea Party darling Rand Paul calling Obama’s attacks on BP “un-American.”

First the right appropriated God, equating churchgoing with party affiliation and demonizing Democrats as secularists. Now they’re trying to hijack the Constitution, as though their reading of the Founders’ intent is the only true one. At a panel in Washington on Wednesday morning titled “Tea Time: Can There Be a Conservative Populism?” Armey joined conservative media figures Bill Kristol, Michael Barone, and Jonah Goldberg to ponder the future of the Tea Party. Together, they were more confident about understanding its beginnings than figuring out where it might go. Goldberg quoted historian Richard Hofstadter comparing third-party movements to bees: they sting and then they die.

The moment of conception, they agreed, was when President Bush endorsed Arlen Specter, then a Republican, over Club for Growth conservative Pat Toomey. Specter was already seen as a turncoat and emblematic of a party that had lost its conservative moorings. The moment of birth was CNBC commentator Rick Santelli’s February ’09 rant, when he called for a Chicago Tea Party dumping to protest the bank bailout. Santelli is the patron saint of the movement for daring to raise what they call “the moral argument” of taking from the deserving to redistribute to the undeserving, or as one panelist put it, paying for the extra bathroom your neighbor built and couldn’t pay for.

Everybody offered up paeans to the enduring everydayness of the people drawn to the Tea Party, and how they love their grandchildren and resent being looked down upon by the media elites. “They don’t have a mean bone in their body,” Armey said at one point, only to add “they’re like Clark Kent out there. They’re ready to go into the phone booth. ‘You break our hearts again, and we will break your legs.’ ” Asked by a reporter about Nevada Tea Party candidate Sharron Angle’s comment that there might be a Second Amendment remedy for her opponent, Harry Reid, Armey said he was sure she probably wished she could take that back, and that these are rookie mistakes. Angle is now so unavailable to the media, she might as well be in a witness-protection program.

The panel agreed that these are growing pains when a flood of new people come into the system, and that the voters may reward these candidates for being candid and bold even if they don’t agree with everything they say, like phasing out Social Security, which Angle has proposed. “Let me do one of these noo-ance things,” Armey interjected, putting on his best West Texas face, suggesting Social Security be made voluntary. “If you did that, it would go away. People would not choose to put their hard-earned money into a corrupt government Ponzi scheme.” Armey asked for a show of hands as to who would take their money and run if they could. Only a smattering of hands went up in the largely conservative crowd.

This is what happens when conservative populism meets reality. Cutting back the size of government is great in theory, but if the Tea Party crowd actually succeeded, mused panelist Barone, “will it prove just as unpopular as what these guys [members of the Obama administration] are doing?” Obama is struggling to get command of the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, and what he’s doing is far from perfect. But when voters consider the alternative, they should ask all these born-again property-rights proponents what it is they would do, besides call their lawyer.

Eleanor Clift is the author of Two Weeks of Life: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Politics and Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment.