Tempest in a Teabag

Where was the libertarian outrage before Obama took office?

In Washington, news has a paltry shelf life. Guests and fish are good for at least three days, but fresh ideas and new information begin to putrefy as soon as they hit the cynical air of a city that bathes in influence and feasts on idealism.

Add to that a once-in-a-generation economic realignment, the ambition of a young president's first 100 days, and continual pressure on newsrooms to move at the pace of the online world, and describing news today in a meaningful way becomes like using traffic patterns on the morning commute to divine future movements in oil prices.

In the past month, the legislature in Vermont and a court in Iowa sanctioned gay marriage; the administration moved closer to talks with Cuba; the EPA announced that greenhouse gases threaten public health; the secretary of defense proposed a massive shakeup in procurement; pirates attacked an American merchant ship and were promptly felled; and citizens across the country dressed in their best Revolutionary War garb to protest government waste and taxes by hosting "tea parties."

Of all of these, the one that made ripples from Knoxville outward were the tea parties, and for that Knoxville native Glenn Reynolds deserves much credit.

A UT law professor and one of the most widely read bloggers at his Instapundit.com, Reynolds on April 15 was a one-man fife and drum corps. Within the space of a few hours he published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, appeared on NPR's call-in show Talk of the Nation (unfortunately for its audience, WUOT doesn't carry the program), and covered the event for online media outlet Pajamas TV.

Reynolds spent much of his traditional media time defending against the charge that the tea parties were "Astroturf"—a clever metaphor for a movement dressed up to look like a genuine, spontaneous expression of popular inspiration or dissatisfaction but actually manufactured by traditional political and business organizations to further their own interests.

Unfortunately Reynolds, a proud sportsman himself, cannot be described as having no dog in this hunt. For as a pundit running a libertarian website, he agrees with many of the demonstrators' supposed goals of lower taxes and smaller government, so he has a stake in portraying them as genuine rather than contrived.

Additionally, his new-media status (in the blogosphere he's known as "the BlogFather") and his 2006 book on the way new media allows social movements to form without need for traditional organizations may color his thinking. However, this is more a question for philosophers and neuropsychologists than for columnists, and we in the withering old media admittedly have our own built-in biases.

But the parties didn't happen without traditional organizations. Former Republican House majority leader Dick Armey's FreedomWorks, a nonprofit that promotes lower taxes and smaller government, was an explicit cosponsor. And Fox News not only covered the events but, perhaps unsurprisingly, crossed what used to be a sacred journalistic line into promoting them.

Liberals cite Armey and Fox News' involvement as evidence of a nefarious GOP plot to weaken a solution (the bailout plan and stimulus package) to a problem (the financial meltdown) they say the GOP caused. Meanwhile tea baggers—colonized mostly by what seem to be Ron Paul libertarians and disaffected Republicans—counter they're angry with both Republicans and Democrats but are being marginalized for not celebrating the binge of Keynesian spending and the debt hangover it will necessarily incur.

Determining where political engineering ends and grassroots movements begin is a chicken-and-egg question whose answer says more about how much one agrees or disagrees with the cause being promoted than anything else. And even if the movement began as the machinations of an influential cabal, it obviously resonated with many frustrated Americans. But what exactly were participants frustrated with? And will that anger translate into meaningful action?

The first is unclear and the second, as a result, unlikely.

For the obscurity of the tea-baggers' historical reference and clothing were matched only by their improvidence in choosing a catchphrase ("Teabag this, Teabag that") that in this century describes a salacious sexual act, leaving many snickering and others to wonder what all this was about.

Reynolds has his work cut out for him. In October 2006 he posted a joke on his blog that went "You know how many libertarians it takes to change a lightbulb [sic]? Only one, but you have to get him to show up."

Well, many showed up April 15, but true to form they were touting various, sometimes competing messages. To be sure, many echoed a libertarian agenda of lower taxes, smaller government, and "more freedom," but then there were signs wishing ill to Obama, charges of "white slavery," and a patchwork of other claims that ranged from the justifiable to the plainly offensive.

And all this amounted to was a show of anger. But who isn't angry? The country's being forced to choose between rewarding bankers' bad decisions or cutting off its nose to spite its face. Is it better to be angry and unemployed?

Pushing for fiscal discipline is a noble cause. Entitlements like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, paired with the interest on the national debt, will consume larger and larger portions of future budgets, constraining the ability of future generations to deal with problems unknowable in today's world and chaining them to the obligations of a profligate past.

But if there's a time for spending, it's during a deep recession. And where were the tea parties, the fiscal conservatism, the libertarian outrage when President Bush simultaneously started a war in Iraq, cut taxes for the wealthy, and increased spending? Or when billions entrusted to defense contractors with explicit ties to the administration simply disappeared in Iraq?

It does us precious little good to justify present mistakes with past errors. But it's worth asking, Why is the threshold for action only crossed when someone proposes spending on the sick, indigent, and uneducated?