It took me until I was actually walking through the people gathered for a tea party event to realize that I've seen all this before. Walking around the knots of people and reading the mismatched signs, the groups I saw -- disaffected teens who were too timid to be actual skinheads but who had been working on their defiant scowl, elderly couples waving American flags who had a vague sense that the country had run off and left them, flat out weirdos with braided beards and muttonchops who looked as if they were dressed in the discards from an Army thrift store -- it all seemed eerily familiar.
And it was. It was 1992. All that was missing was a big eared guy and some flip charts.
This wasn't a tax protest or a conservative movement, it was the semi-regular Gathering of the Disaffected. Were they following a script first proposed by Rick Santelli with edits by Glenn Beck? Mostly. Were they shouting slogans from the Constitution Party? Yes. With a sprinkling of talking points for the Chamber of Commerce. They read any script put in front of them, cheered every speaker to take the stage. They swallowed up Campaign for Liberty and the John Birch Society with equal relish. Anyone who told them that The World is Not Right, Damn It and You're Not Getting A Fair Shake was welcome.
They were willing to believe that Obama had just passed the largest tax increase in history. That the president had put the nation at risk of attack. That he had managed to put the economy in a tailspin months ahead of taking office.
On the other hand, if you tried to tell them that they'd just been the recipients of the biggest tax in history, or reminded them of the successful conclusion to the drama off the African coast, you'd have been hustled off the stage. After all, Obama is the real pirate -- there were a number of signs that said so. Inform them that they were simply on the losing side of an election won by the most lop-sided margin in a decade, and you might have gotten a very close look at some of those hand-lettered signs. That wasn't why they were there. They didn't to believe that the country is sound and that democracy works. They're upset, and they want nothing more than to believe everyone else is upset, too. The GOP sees that as a win. They shouldn't.
Yes, the idea that this was a bipartisan affair is about as funny as an evening at the Improv with Neil Cavuto. For every Republican name that made it onto a hate sign, there were a hundred insults for Harry Reid, two hundred for Nancy Pelosi, and five hundred for President Obama. Make no mistake about it: the folks who milled about aimlessly at their various locations across America hates them some liberals.
That doesn't mean they'll do one lick of good for the GOP.
If Republicans are thinking these are the guys who are going to be manning their phone banks in 2010, the ones who are going to be knocking on doors, or coughing up checks for the RNC -- they better think again. These folks are gone. They've left the reservation -- a lot of them left it back in 1992 -- and they're not going to come back.
This was a Ron Paul crowd. This was a Constitution Party crowd. This was a third party all the way crowd. Campaign for Liberty wasn't just helping out with the show -- this was their show, and any GOP candidate who thought guys waving "Pelosi Sux" signs were an automatic win, missed the zeitgeist of this group by a Bob Barr Country mile.
In the crowd I mingled with, there were a lot of guys either wearing or carrying signs saying "look out, I'm one of those dangerous extremists!" It was meant as a joke -- but it hits very close to the bone. These folks are certainly extremist, you only have to look at the polls to see that, and they are dangerous, though only the tiniest fraction of one percent are dangerous in the sense of being the kind of fruit loop who uses a bomb or gun to get their way. No, these folks are potentially dangerous in the same way as those folks back in 1992.
In the 1992 race, Rose Perot took 18% of the vote, but that was after Perot had withdrawn from the race, then reentered, revealing himself as more than a little flaky. Just prior to that early exit, Perot had actually been been ahead in national polls at 39%, while Bush followed at 31% and Clinton trailed the pack at 25%. The mantra of the Clinton campaign, "it's the economy, stupid," was already the theme of the Perot campaign. Had Ross Perot not publicly indulged in fantasies about his daughter's wedding and picked a vice-presidential nominee who was the most unthinkable candidate imaginable pre-Sarah Palin, he might well have won.
Like the folks who backed Perot, the baggies are not Republicans. The signs there were a mixture of libertarian and populist, corporatist and anarchist, simply unhappy and deeply disturbed. Taxes were far from the only concern -- they weren't even the primary concern. They were simply upset, and momentarily excited to share that unhappiness with others, even if those others didn't care one whit about the cause of their unhappiness.
What started on April 15th might actually be the beginning of a movement. And just because third parties haven't be successful in the last 150 years is no guarantee that they'll continue to be unsuccessful for the next 150, or even the next five. One of these days, candidates with letters other then (D) and (R) after their names will take their seats in Congress. One of these days we'll have a president from some party you've never heard of.
That said, there's little reason to think what we saw last week was the start of such a movement. One thing that people rarely remember now that Perot has been reduced to a quick imitation that includes "opening up the hood" and a few pie charts is -- he was good. He was a natural on stage who, according to the polls, bested both Bush and Clinton in the first debate. His spiel wasn't just a populist mix of budget numbers and term limits. Though his solutions tended to generalities, he was willing to grab all the "third rails" all at once, including talking about revising the Constitution.
Keep in mind our Constitution predates the Industrial Revolution. Our founders did not know about electricity, the train, telephones, radio, television, automobiles, airplanes, rockets, nuclear weapons, satellites, or space exploration. There's a lot they didn't know about. It would be interesting to see what kind of document they'd draft today. Just keeping it frozen in time won't hack it.
There are two big problems for the baggies (and the lobbyists who put together the tax day events) if they hope to match what Perot did in 1992. If they want to turn a one time outing into a political movement, they need acceptable, inspiring leadership. Ron Paul is not that guy. Neither is Bob Barr or Rick Perry.
They also need a coherent message. One that's not a mix of "I'm paying too much tax," "cap and trade is evil," "secession is legal," and "Obama is a fascist/socialist/communist wussy."
With no strong leader and no consistent message, the baggies won't have to worry about their numbers in 2012. They'll still be sitting at home, and still be convinced something is wrong -- even if they can't quite put their finger on what it is.
Then sooner or later someone will draw the same crowd to gather for some new cause. Sure as frak, this will all happen again.