The Right Opinion

Three Questions for the Tea Party

By Michael Gerson · Aug. 25, 2010

WASHINGTON – So the “summer of recovery” swelters on, with Democrats sun-blistered, pestered by bottle flies, sand in their swimsuits, water in their ears. Jobless claims increase, Republicans lead the generic congressional ballot and George W. Bush is six points more popular than President Obama in “frontline” Democratic districts that are most vulnerable to a Republican takeover. Still, Democrats hug the hope that Obama is really the liberal Ronald Reagan – but without wit, humor, an explainable ideology or an effective economic plan. Other than that, the resemblance is uncanny.

Yet the Republican Party suffers its own difficulty – an untested ideology at the core of its appeal.

In the normal course of events, political movements begin as intellectual arguments, often conducted for years in serious books and journals. To study the tea party movement, future scholars will sift through the tweets of Sarah Palin. Without a history of clarifying, refining debates, Republicans need to ask three questions of candidates rising on the tea party wave:

First, do you believe that Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional? This seems to be the unguarded view of Colorado Republican U.S. Senate candidate Ken Buck and other tea party advocates of “constitutionalism.” It reflects a conviction that the federal government only has powers specifically enumerated in the Constitution – which doesn’t mention retirement insurance or health care.

This view is logically consistent – as well as historically uninformed, morally irresponsible and politically disastrous. The Constitution, in contrast to the Articles of Confederation, granted broad power to the federal government to impose taxes and spend funds to “provide for … the general welfare” – at least if Alexander Hamilton and a number of Supreme Court rulings are to be believed. In practice, Social Security abolition would push perhaps 13 million of the elderly into destitution, blurring the line between conservative idealism and Social Darwinism.

This approach undermines a large conservative achievement. Despite early misgivings about Social Security and the Civil Rights Act, Ronald Reagan moved Republicans past Alf Landon’s resistance to the New Deal, and Barry Goldwater’s opposition to federal civil rights law, focusing instead on economic growth and national strength. A consistent “constitutionalism” would entangle Republicans in an endless, unfolding political gaffe – opposing, in moments of candor, unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, the federal highway system and the desegregation of lunch counters.

A second question of tea party candidates: Do you believe that American identity is undermined by immigration? An internal debate has broken out on this issue among tea party favorites. Tom Tancredo, running for Colorado governor, raises the prospect of bombing Mecca, urges the president to return to his Kenyan “homeland” and calls Miami a “Third World country” – managing to offend people on four continents. Dick Armey of FreedomWorks appropriately criticizes Tancredo’s “harsh and uncharitable and mean-spirited attitude on the immigration issue.” But the extremes of the movement, during recent debates on birthright citizenship and the Manhattan mosque, seem intent on depicting Hispanics and Muslims as a fifth column.

There is no method more likely to create ethnic resentment and separatism than unfair suspicion. The nativist impulse is the enemy of assimilation. In a nation where minorities now comprise two-fifths of children under 18, Republicans should also understand that tolerating nativism would bring slow political asphyxiation.

Question three: Do you believe that gun rights are relevant to the health care debate? Nevada Republican U.S. Senate candidate Sharron Angle raised this issue by asserting that, “If this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies.” Far from reflecting the spirit of the Founders (who knew how to deal with the Whiskey Rebellion), the implied resort to political violence is an affectation – more foolish than frightening. But it is toxic for the GOP to be associated with the armed and juvenile.

Most Americans who identify with the tea party movement are understandably concerned about the size and reach of government. Their enthusiasm is a clear Republican advantage. But tea party populism is just as clearly incompatible with some conservative and Republican beliefs. It is at odds with Abraham Lincoln’s inclusive tone and his conviction that government policies could empower individuals. It is inconsistent with religious teaching on government’s responsibility to seek the common good and to care for the weak. It does not reflect a Burkean suspicion of radical social change.

The Democratic political nightmare is now obvious and overwhelming. The Republican challenge is different: building a majority on an unstable, slightly cracked foundation.

© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

View all comments

22 Comments

Bruce said:

Your writing is as convoluted as your thinking. There are NO Tea Party candidates. The Tea Party DOES NOT ENDORSE ANY CANDIDATE. And being a republican, especially a RINO, does NOT entitle one to be endorsed or even to be affiliated with the Tea Party. Your questions are of the "when did you stop beating your wife" variety. And they deserve special attention. Socialist programs, designed by socialists, were what the Framers of the Constitution were seeking to AVOID. The fact that traitors have twisted the Constitution to put in their own agenda as did FDR, leaves us with an insoluble puzzle - something they intended so that it would never be undone. America undermined by immigration? No, just by illegal aliens and fools who believe they are immigrants. Gun rights and obamacare? Angle's point was the same as Jefferson's: the Second Amendment exists to help American citizens protect themselves from a government grown as corrupt, cancerous and tyrannical as the one headed by the likes of Reid, Pelozi and Obama who would put us under a communistic style of health care. "Lincoln's conviction that government policies could empower individuals" is BS. He, along with the Founders understood that WE THE PEOPLE ARE WHO EMPOWERS THE GOVERNMENT. And your proposition that "religious teaching on government's responsibility (is) to seek the common good and to care for the weak" is similarly a socialist inspired communist doctrine based on twisting our founding documents. Your soviet education and anti-American loyalties are showing. Get a job. Just do it in some other country. Preferably a muslim one.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010 at 9:21 AM

RiverKing said:

Thanks, Bruce. You saved me a bunch of time by writing what I was about to write.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010 at 9:51 AM

JTG in Indiana said:

Comrade Michael,We don't need another moderate voicing an opinion which is contrary to what it is that we patriots need to do in taking back our country. We are not limp-wristed nor are we phobia driven.Social security - we protect those who have paid into the system for decades but we need a plan to eliminate this government raided piggy bank over the next 3 decades.Immigration is not an issue as long as it's legal immigration. We don't kowtow to the illegals whether they be Muslim or Mexican. Get in line and wait just as our forebearers had to endure.Second amendment rights have been diluted by views held by those that are similar to yours. It may take a violent rebellion should our politicians ignore the will of the people. All else has been tried and our elected officials do not understand the severity of what they are imposing on us.Please wake up and by all means, drink some tea.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010 at 10:26 AM

MIResident in Michigan said:

Good response Bruce.I would respond to;Q1: Yes, Unconstitutional. Are we going to throw millions of seniors out to the curb? Of course not and to imply that is a liberal democrat scare tactic. Transition social security to a IRA/401k like system and get the government dirty hands off the money.Q2:By illegal immigration and the liberal democrat motto of NOT assimilating into American culture.Q3: Only to the 2nd and the fact that ObamaCare is unconstitutional, and the Constitution reserves the right of We The People to reform government.My thoughts at least.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010 at 12:07 PM

ThirtyNineWinks in Longmont, CO said:

Your ellipsis in the "quote" of the preamble totally distorts the meaning, liar. The phrase reads: "... provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and ...." The Common Defense is to be provided. General Welfare is to be PROMOTED, not PROVIDED.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010 at 12:24 PM

Ernest Wilson in Maryland said:

Clever arguments but false. I would reply:1. Yes these programs are unconstitional. They will require recognition of all the taxes paid into them and a way to transition to some other form of providing for old age. As an alternative an amendment to the constition to authorize them in some form may be considered.2. Legal, controlled immigration is fine, we are after all a nation of immigrants. Uncontrolled immigration into a welfare state is suicidal. 3. If the plainly stated right of Americans to own and carry firearms can be ignored or other-wise violated by well intentioned but misgiuded fools, what other right can be violated? How about freedom of the press or religion or assembly? The words mean what they say or does the whole document mean nothing? It seems very clear to me that a means of keeping the Constition current was contemplated and provided for in the document itself. Why else provide for ammendments? It was never intended to be as easy as letting one groups ideology change it as has been done in the last 50 years.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010 at 1:27 PM

Luther said:

It annoys me to no end that the Patriot Post continues to publish this socialist apologist. He & and his previous Democrat-lite employer, GW Bush, are the reason the tea parties exist, and why the GOP lost credibility. Glad to see I'm not alone.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010 at 1:37 PM

JAC in Texas said:

Gerson, you've stayed too long in Washington, D.C, and have become saturated with the Democrats' crap. If you're going to write your columns based on their talking points and typical scare tactics, you need to find a new job. Every post preceding mine was written by someone who has his head on straight.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010 at 2:14 PM

A Citizen said:

Bruce is absolutely correct. The first mistake Gerson makes is in thinking that the republican leadership is on board or in any way in agreement with the Tea Party Movement. The former is trying to co-opt the later for their own benefit (read Trent Lott). The second is in assuming that the Republicans have any kind of a plan or guiding core principals that they can compare to the Tea Party principals. If there actually WERE any leadership in the RNC, they would be blowing the libs out of the water. They would be having landslide elections as there were for Reagan. He was a prime example of what happens when you have core principals and stand by them. Unlike the squishy RINOs in charge of the RNC today, who will sell out the country for personal political gain.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010 at 3:06 PM

Moose said:

There are some who believe that Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional. There are others such as myself that believe neither is providing "security" to anyone when the tax money goes into the General Fund to be spent at the whim of the politicians. Usually, they are spent via pork barrel earmarks to payoff political constituencies and secure re-election! The money should have been placed in the so called "lock box" where the money is invested and grown in order to take care of the now retiring baby boomers. It wasn't, so the government will now have to filch more of our tax dollars to cover existing recipients. Both sides have been feeding at the trough, but who's going to pass legislation to curb this?Trying to make immigration a race-baited question is most unsettling. We are not against Immigration. We are against ILLEGAL Immigration. Illegal Immigrants come into this country, pay no taxes to support all the programs (including Social Security and Medicare BTW), and use the services available that we pay for with our taxes. If they want to come into this country, let them go through the official channels, obtain their citizenship, receive their Social Security number, and start paying their share of the taxes.As for gun rights, it is a cornerstone of the Bill Of Rights. Tyranny begins when those in charge try to take away a person's right to protect themselves. The ones committing the crimes are not registering guns and are not responsible gun owners. They are obtaining them on the Black Market. Stop persecuting the responsible gun owners by threatening to take away their guns. If the government succeeded in banning ALL guns, crime would exponentially because they know that the populace cannot protect themselves.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010 at 3:18 PM

Flip said:

The experts all agree, Moose. Take away the guns and you ensure only the criminals have them. Just ask Hitler, Stalin and Mao, to name a few. But rest assurred that muslim in the white house and his hussy running State will ensure we lose our Second Amendment rights just as soon as they can replace another Supreme. Or they can get us under Sharia or UN law. Either way, the thugs will be running the prison.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010 at 4:45 PM

Caseace said:

You have it upside down Gerson. It's not the Republicans that need to ask questions, we need to ask them questions. Forget your ridiculous postulations, how about; 1) Do you believe in the Constitution as written or as a 'living' document? (This phrase should be a 'dying' document) 2) Do you support a secure border? 3) Do you believe in limited government?With those 3 answers we will know where they stand.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010 at 5:54 PM

Dave said:

It's getting harder and harder to tell the Republicans from the Democrats without a program. Both have become members of a Political Class whose main interest is maintaining themselves in power and keeping their separation from the citizens of this Republic. They are happy to bat the ball back and forth between themselves, trading a few years of Republican power for a few years of Democratic power down the line. Back and forth they go, speaking in talking points designed to inflame the passions of their supporters, but that add no subtance to the public debate. In the end, the long term issues affecting our future continue to be ignored. Gerson is typical of the breed. He is concerned we don't rock the boat about Social Security and Medicare lest we disturb the Republican's turn at the wheel. Don't take a political position that may upset the seniors! Sweep the problem under the carpet for the next generation to deal with! They cloak the very real security concerns about an open border to the south in the language of racism to ensure support from Hispanics. Finally, he attempts to paint those arguing for real change as some sort of wild eyed radicals whose support for the Second Amendment is a danger to the Republic. The Tea Party holds no danger for the Republic. Rather, it is the established Political Class that is under threat. I hold out hope that the country can be saved at the ballot box, but take comfort that in our Second Amendment rests the ultimate protection against the ravages of tyranny. I truely hope it will not come to that end.Dave

Wednesday, August 25, 2010 at 5:55 PM

BrianK in Northwest Arkansas said:

Gerson, re-read the 10th amendment and tell me again that the Constitution does not tell us "... the federal government only has powers specifically enumerated in the Constitution -- which doesn't mention retirement insurance or health care."

Wednesday, August 25, 2010 at 6:19 PM

Brian said:

I have a question for you Mr. Gerson;Were you allowed to write this tripe to give the left equal time on the Patriot Post?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010 at 9:11 PM