I attended the Cincinnati Tax Day Tea Party rally as a speaker. But it was more interesting to be an observer.
First, here's what I didn't see. I didn't see a single racist or bigoted sign or hear a single such comment. Nor did I see any evidence of "homegrown fascism." Though in fairness, such things are often in the eye of the beholder, now that dissent has gone from being the highest form of patriotism under George W. Bush to the most common form of racism under Barack Obama.
But I did see something a lot of people, on both the left and the right, seemed to have missed: a delayed Bush backlash.
One of the more widespread anti-tea party arguments goes like this: Republicans didn't protest very much when Bush ran up deficits and expanded government, so when Obama does the same thing (albeit on a far grander scale), Republican complaints can't be sincere.
This lazy sophistry opens the door to liberals' preferred argument: racism. "No student of American history," writes Paul Butler in the New York Times, "would be surprised to learn that when the United States elects its first non-white president, a strong anti-government movement rises up."
Butler, a law professor and author of the no-doubt-seminal "Let's Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice," speaks for many in the media when he insinuates that nearly unprecedented stimulus spending combined with government takeovers of the health care, banking and automotive industries are dwarfed in importance by Obama's skin color.
I speak for many who have actually spoken to tea partiers when I say that is slanderous hogwash.
But how, then, to explain the relative right-wing quiescence on Bush's watch and fiscal Puritanism on Obama's?
No doubt partisanship plays a role. But partisanship only explains so much given that the tea partiers are clearly sincere about limited government and often quite fond of Republican-bashing. So here's an alternative explanation: Conservatives don't want to be fooled again.
Recall that Bush came into office promising to be a "different kind of conservative," and one of his first legislative victories was the No Child Left Behind Act, sponsored by Teddy Kennedy.
Throughout his presidency, Bush's "compassionate conservatism" surrendered either rhetorically or substantively to the assumptions of welfare state liberalism, i.e. that your decency was best measured by your commitment to large, inefficient government programs. "When somebody hurts," Bush insisted, "government has got to move."
Many conservatives disliked this whole mind-set and the policies behind it, from comprehensive immigration reform to Medicare Part D.
Many conservatives muted their objections, in part because they actually liked the man personally or because they approved of his stances on tax cuts, judges, abortion and, most important, the war on terror (we can see a similar dynamic with so many antiwar liberals who still support Obama).
Conservatives didn't necessarily bite their tongues (remember the Harriet Miers and immigration fiascoes), but they did prioritize supporting Bush often in the face of far nastier attacks than Obama has received over ideological purity. Besides, where were conservatives supposed to go? Into the arms of John Kerry?
The 2008 GOP primaries compounded conservative frustration. Because there was no stand-in for Bush in the contest, there was no obvious outlet for anger at Bush's years of pre-surge Iraq bungling or his decision to outsource domestic spending to Republican congressional ward-heelers. Then, as a lame duck, Bush laid down the predicates for much of Obama's first 100 days, supporting both a stimulus and Wall Street bailouts. As one participant of the D.C. Tea Party rally told the Washington Examiner's Byron York, "George Bush opened the door for Barack Obama and the Democrats to walk in."
According to last week's NYT/CBS poll of tea party supporters, 57 percent have a favorable view of Bush, but that hardly captures the nuance of tea party feelings. For instance, when Bush's face appeared on the Jumbotron in the arena, the Cincinnati audience applauded. When speakers criticized Bush and the GOP for "losing their way," the audience applauded even louder.
Going by what I saw in Cincinnati, second to a profound desire to rein in government, the chief attitude driving the 39 percent of tea partiers who describe themselves as "very conservative" isn't partisanship, racism or seizing the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia.
It's "we won't be fooled again." In the near term, that spells trouble for Obama and Democrats. In the long term, that lays down a serious gauntlet for Republicans.