Ronald Reagan a tea-partier? That's what you would have thought to hear some of the rhetoric coming out of last week's Tea Party Nation convention in Nashville. That was particularly so on the last day and night of the conference, when the likes of Memphian Mark Skoda, TPN organizer Judson Phillips, and, most importantly, keynote speaker Sarah Palin all seemed to have a species of Tourette's Syndrome in which the name and legacy of the Gipper kept coming compulsively and uncontrollably to their lips.
Ronald Reagan? He of the corporate tax cuts and gargantuan military spend-out and the blank check to profiteers in the financial services industry? C'mon! We had some nice things to say editorially about the 40th president of the United States upon his passing in 2004. He was an agreeable sort as a public person (though not necessarily to his immediate kinfolks), and as a figurehead he had something to do with restoring national pride and maybe, just maybe, his economic policies put the brakes on runaway inflation.
But a populist? A friend of the little guy, of the dispossessed citizen? Never. The great savings and loan boondoggle of the 1980s owed everything to Reagan's mania for deregulation, which ladled out subsidies to big business and gave preference to monolithic enterprises, not Mom 'n' Pop stores. And the great housing bubble of our own disillusisoned decade, blown up by phantom money and all those complicated derivatives and followed by the now infamous Big Bailout? All that was arguably but a spinoff of the Age of Reagan.
So how did Reagan end up the patron saint of the Tea Party movement? How, for that matter, did Sarah Palin — who, for all her sex appeal and uniqueness as a personality, is really just mouthing the same old GOP talking-points — become its reigning goddess?
We would love to be proven wrong, but what we fear is that the Tea Party movement, which manifestly includes many, many citizens who genuinely want to make their government become more responsive to grass-roots needs and sentiment, is on its way to becoming nothing more than an adjunct to the great Rovian wind machine that exists to justify not legitimate populism but, for better or for worse, the tactical and strategic needs of the national G.O.P. hierarchy.
Face it; that's what Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and Fox News are all about, and that's the doctrine that National Republican chairman Michael Steele was preaching over in Little Rock last week — a doctrine of laissez-faire for the Big Boys and of let-them-eat-rhetoric for everybody else. Steele was co-billed with former Memphis congressman Harold Ford Jr., now head of the Democratic Leadership Conference and, as he acknowledged, a likely candidate for the U.S. Senate in New York.
Ford has never been our beau ideal of Democratic progressivism, though, to give him his due, he offered lip service to the long-since deceased public option component of a national health-care initiative. But he, too, proposed economic solutions that were based almost entirely on new tax breaks for corporations.
What we fear with this new wave of revisionism is that it's taking us not away from the excesses and special privileges of the past but right back into them. It's a counter-populism, really.