DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — I was trapped in conversation this week with a candidate for high public office who, anticipating my rude question, blurted out that she was “running to restore people’s trust in government.” All I could think to say in return was, “Why would you want to do that?”
You will already have surmised that the nice lady was not quoting from the platform of the Tea Party. No, she is the leading candidate, in a medium-red state, of the Republican Party and that’s the message she will carry to the voters this year with a high-church sense of GOP purpose.
You see our problem.
Here we are, stuck in a political cycle where almost nothing has gone right. We have taken a beating on politics, on economics, on culture. It’s tough out there for everybody without Federal fix or favor. The only ray of sunshine is this healthy skepticism of government that’s been rekindled among the citizenry — and now, here comes our well-coiffed candidate with the straight seams determined to stamp out all the sparks before personal freedom breaks out in unplanned ways. I’m kicking myself. I should have cajoled her into joining me for the race down here and then introduced her to the crowd. There’s nothing like the sound of 195,000 constituents booing to sharpen a politician’s sense of direction.
Truth be, there are few places in the world like the Daytona International Speedway when it comes to spritzing lighter fluid all over that rekindling process. Remember that scrawny little C-SPAN wonkenanny they held over in Nashville the other day? They called it the Tea Party Convention, but it served up little more than tourist samples of see-through herbal tea. Here at the Daytona 500 we are mustered up at the Southern Command, surrounded by the fully caffeinated, double-shot foot soldiers of the national Tea Party movement. Most of these folks can’t even remember when they lost their trust in government and they wouldn’t spend much time in lamentation if they did. The very heritage of stock car racing, we are reminded, is swaddled in the myth of the moonshiners, the backcountry boozers who, sensing the approach of the revenoors, revved up their’57 Chevys and trusted their wheels to be somewhat hotter than the government’s. My candidate would have rooted for the revenooers. But she’s a quick study, give her that. It would have taken her about ten minutes to figure out that, while some of these folks have evidently been looking for love in the wrong places, not a one of them has been looking for her trust-in-government project.
What she also would have noticed is that these small-t tea partiers are intensely political. They plaster wit and wisdom all over their tee-shirts, none of it reflecting the 46% of the country that, Mr. Gallup insists, support the President. Unlike a baseball crowd, or a Philly crowd, they actually cheer for the good guys. They like Tim McGraw’s songs. They like the preacher who prays for a good race “in the name of Jesus.” They like the F-15’s aerial turns and the waterskier’s tricks. They like Harry Connick Jr.’s old-school rendition of the national anthem. But most conspicuously, their affection for Sarah Palin is uninflected. After the shortest political speech in history, they like her for Grand Marshall or President or Best Female Recording Artist or Whatever That Gal Wants. They just-plain like her, almost as much as they like giving the digital salute to David Brooks, David Gergen, and various other pairs of fancy pants.
The point is that, as wired as they are just now by the politics of the day, they care a lot more about their families. And their communities. And their churches. And lots of other things that never pop up in the box slugged “Today’s Events” in the Washington Post. Today, for instance, they like cars. I claim no expertise in things NASCAR. I’m just dipping into the bucket list and traipsing after Miss Sarah, but I think I get it. Fans from across a ten-state region hustle over here three hours before the flag drops to steep themselves in a uniquely American experience. Handsome young men strapping themselves into high-performance machines, performing unnatural acts of skill and courage. This isn’t curling or poker. These drivers are great athletes. And it helps, I’m told, if you have a bit of the crazy in you. To win the “great American race,” you have to average — average — 140-some miles per hour around a tightly banked track that’s only 40 feet wide and 2.5 miles long. That’s like trying to gun a motorcycle around your living room. Tough enough to do if you’re out there all alone, a dam-sight tougher if you’re banging fenders with 42 other crazies, most of whom would probably prefer that you survive the afternoon but have no strong feelings on the question. And here’s the kicker: you have to keep up this suicidal pace for more than three hours and 500 miles, which of course would be 804 kilometers for those of you seeking to restore trust in government. What I’m saying is that these folks are real Americans, which means that they have better things to do than mess with politics. They’re making a one-time offer to the rest of us and the expiration date is fast approaching.
It’s my clear sense that we’re at an inflection point in the Tea Party movement. We know what they’re against: the sad and widely unremarked fact that Obama is conducting what looks to many people very much like a third Bush term — bailouts, stimulus, entitlement expansion, war escalation, wall-to-wall Tenth Amendment overreach from the school to the hospital to the bank to the gas station. Over the last few years, alarmingly, we seem to be getting all the government we’re paying for.
It’s not nearly as clear what the Tea Partiers are for. Now that they’ve busted up the incumbent paradigms, where will they turn next? As I count them, it could be any one of three ways. First and most likely, they could go home. They don’t fancy politics, most of them, and they could easily slide back into apathy and disgust, back there with the normal people. Second, they could stumble toward a “third way” and nominate their own hard-case candidates, many of them unelectable in the Fall but most of them capable of inflicting damage on incrementalist Republicans. The third possibility is that they could be wooed and won by a reinvigorated GOP and provide the winning margin for conservatives in 2010 and beyond. A reinvigorated GOP, did I say? Okay, that may be asking too much. How about a GOP that can add and subtract?
My advice to Republicans is to take yes for an answer. Slick down your hair, dash across town and make your best pitch . . . now.
If exhortation doesn’t do the trick, let me try an analogy. For 35 years, beginning in 1945, the United States, eyeball-to-eyeball with implacable enemies in the Soviet Union, followed a strategy first advanced by George Kennan and generally identified by the shorthand term, “containment.” Over the course of those years, we more or less succeeded, blunting the thrust of Soviet expansion here and there while keeping the nuclear peace for several decades. But in the 1980s, we phased out “containment” and replaced it with the more aggressive approach, first promoted by James Burnham and later adopted by Ronald Reagan, described as the “liberation” strategy. By directly confronting an overstuffed and unstable regime, the U.S. managed to liberate the captive peoples of the Soviet empire. Before the decade was out, the Soviet empire had receded, withered and died. Question: is it possible that we stand at a comparable moment today, as we struggle here at home with the pervasive power of the administrative state? Is it possible that, with the infused energies of the Tea Party movement, we could muster the resources, moral and political, to replace our current strategy of “containment” with a strategy of rolling back the intrusive powers of central government? Is it possible that we have before us an opportunity, both unexpected and unearned, to rebalance the relationship between the citizen and the state? Is it possible, in other words, that the Tea Partiers are making us an offer that we not only can’t refuse, but shouldn’t?
A final thought for D.C. Republicans: When you get across town and knock on that Tea Party door, not to worry. If you find yourself fumbling for words on the front porch, feel free to crib from my own ten-plank platform for 2010:
• Cap government employee pay and benefits at private-sector comparables.
• Rescind the Bush drug benefit for everybody under 60.
• Pressure Bernanke to drain the monetary swamp by selling $1 trillion worth of bonds over the next 18 months.
• Pick a war and win it. Close down the other one.
• Admit a mistake. Abolish the Department of Education.
• For all agencies other than Defense and Education, freeze budgets for two years.
• Raise the retirement age to 70 for all senior benefits.
• Dump Obamacare now. Take a fresh look at healthcare in 2011.
• Extract pledges from 2012 candidates that they will veto any bill with earmarks or budget overages.
• Then, go ahead and set up that deficit commission.