There is a scene from Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” in which Robert De Niro’s infamous sociopath Travis Bickle flatters suave presidential candidate Charles Palantine as he takes a ride in Bickle’s cab. Beneath the veneer of his support for the candidate’s populist campaign, however, is a barely concealed menace that erupts later in the film. Potential Republican candidates for November’s mid-term elections may have some sympathy for Palantine as they decide how seriously to take the complaints of their local Tea Partiers against President Barack Obama’s agenda. They would do well to remember that in a nation built on compromise, such rhetoric can be taken only so far.
Comparing the Tea Party movement to Travis Bickle is exactly the kind of liberal media conservatives love to rail against, revelling in their roles as right-wing crackpots. The movement’s sheer size, energy and potential electoral power take it way beyond the realm of the merely kooky, and there is something a bit scary about Indiana Republican Senatorial candidate Richard Behney telling Tea Party supporters what he would do if Washington, D.C. didn’t start listening to them soon: “I’m cleaning my guns and getting ready for the big show. And I’m serious about that, and I bet you are, too.”
By contrast, the Colonial Area Tea Party that took place on the College of William and Mary campus last April, was devoid of such bellicosity as Behney’s and allowed 500 people to vent their frustrations against big-government, bank bailouts and stimulus packages without getting too rowdy.
In Virginia, recent events have emphasized the conservative dilemma. Gov. Bob McDonnell won by casting himself as a moderate job-creator and by downplaying his socially conservative views, while Sen. Scott Brown (Mass.-R) rode a wave of tea all the way to Washington, barely mentioning he was a Republican and claiming to have taken back “the people’s seat.” The debate between pragmatism and populism will rage in the heads of many a Republican strategist between now and November.
Ultimately, many Tea Partiers claim to be through with the Republicans, with Washington, and even with electoral politics. They consider themselves the true heirs of the American Revolution, protecting both the Constitution itself as well as the American citizen from being trampled on by a bloated federal government.
However seductive this narrative may be, conservatives need to wake up and realize there isn’t going to be another revolution. Nor is there going to be “another civil war,” which was recently slated as a possibility by one recently. The American Civil War occurred when the young nation’s genius for compromise deserted her. The legislative process itself is an often messy exercise in give-and-take, and conciliation is built into the Constitution with its delicate balance between the rights of the individual and the proper remit of government. Tea Partiers may feel that this relationship has broken down and the government is to blame, but then you don’t hear many of them admitting they shouldn’t have taken out that mortgage they can’t afford or remained so quiescent during the unprecedented fiscal expansion under former President George W. Bush.
In all likelihood, the temptation for Republicans to pander to the Tea Party movement in the run up to November will be too great, contributing further to the partisan congressional gridlock, which is more of a danger to America’s future than any supposed betrayal of the nation’s revolutionary ideals. When the mid-terms are done, any Republican who claims to have been sent to Washington by the people and then starts cutting deals with Democrats had better watch out — Bickle has got you in his sights.
_E-mail Tim MacFarlan at [email protected]_