George W. Bush's former Speechwriter Michael Gerson--now a WaPost editorial writer--has a column up this morning in which he raises a series of questions for "Tea Party" candidates, questions clearly derived from his uneasiness with the movement (or what may be more properly viewed as a fringe of the fringe). Gerson is as always--civil. But civility does not hide the overall weakness of his view.
Here's how Gerson begins his argument: "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 collected 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?... It reflects a conviction that the federal government has only those 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.
Gerson starts out by telling us that political movements begin as intellectual arguments--and on this, we agree. Then he takes a potshot at the Tea Party by suggesting that future scholars will sift through "tweets" to get at the underpinnings of the Tea Party movement. This is ungenerous. Basic, enduring Constitutional principles lay at the heart of much of the Tea Party's angst. It is Gerson who is historically uninformed, if he fails to recognize that the same arguments made today by (some) Tea Party candidates were made against the enabling legislation of both Social Security and Medicare. Clearly, those principled arguments were not based on "tweets", but on an ideologically honorable view of the role of government that animated the discussions of the Founders. Do I think Social Security or Medicare is unconstitutional? No. Do I think that objecting to them on constitutional grounds is loony or fringe or worthy of contempt? No. Gerson moves on to question number 2:
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.
I don't know about Mr. Gerson, but I don't hear Tea Party advocates bashing "immigration". I hear them bashing "illegal immigration", which is of course, very different than lawfully entering the country. That Mr. Gerson does not distinguish between them is unfortunate. Additionally, Gerson sweeps right over the legitimate questions (constitutional questions) surrounding birthright citizenship and the considerable cultural insensitivity surrounding the placement of a mosque so close to the defining attack of radical Islam upon modern western civilization. These are questions that vex not only Tea Party advocates, but also folks in the middle--which is why so high a percentage of Americans are on the Tea Party's side of both issues.
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.
I agree completely.
Frequent readers know I am not of the Tea Party, and that I am far less a populist than is required to adhere to much of the movement's ideology. Gerson is right that the GOP should not be led by the Tea Party--but in his criticism of the intellectual roots of the movement and its current popular appeal, he denigrates a potential source of strength in practical right of center politics.