What I found most amusing about last week's tea party protests was the palpable defensiveness of many Democrats and lefties in general.
Steve Glorioso, a Kansas City political consultant, dismissed the gatherings as something "dreamed up and promoted by the likes of Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey." The tea party that took place in Kansas City, he said, was "basically a Republican-led, right wing conservative political event."
Bloggers at Playboy, noting how quickly the movement grew, figured it must be backed by some secret group. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the whole thing was "AstroTurf" - not a genuine grassroots effort. Liberal actress Janeane Garofalo suggested tea-party attendees were racists with substandard brains.
True, Gingrich and Armey have been involved, and the tea parties have an obvious anti-Obama slant. Various facets of the Republican Party and conservative movement are keen to use the energy the tea party events represent.
But that energy was there first and it was spontaneous, and it's far from clear that it can be translated into greater support for Republican candidates in next year's congressional races.
The movement began in February with a protest organized by Seattle blogger Keli Carender. Her target: the $787 billion stimulus bill. That led to rallies in other cities.
The movement acquired a name with the famous "rant heard round the world" by CNBC's Rick Santelli, who called for a Chicago "tea party." After that, the movement took off.
What we're seeing is a center-right populist outpouring prompted by the long-term implications of President Barack Obama's gargantuan budget, his spending plans, the massive tide of red ink those plans will generate - and, most important, what all that implies about the future balance between the government and the private sector.
I attended the tea party Wednesday at Kansas City's Liberty Memorial, and I couldn't find anyone who thought the event was about partisan politics. "Both parties are corrupt," said Brian Stednick.
Those with whom I spoke were mostly concerned about the rising national debt, ballooning federal spending - and the threat of higher taxes. Some mentioned the risk of future hyperinflation, given the huge sums of money flowing out of the government and Federal Reserve.
"We're scared to see all the money being spent, and we wonder what's going to happen to our children and grandchildren," said Dan Ellsworth. "We're just concerned about the direction this country is going."
The graph displayed nearby, which has been making the rounds on the Web for the last couple of weeks, crystallizes the fear of many that the government is veering into dangerous territory.
Those who criticized President Bush and the GOP Congress for fiscal irresponsibility were correct; when the Republicans were in power, they spent with little restraint. But as the graph shows, the deficit under Bush was shrinking until the housing bubble popped and the economy tanked.
By comparison, the coming Obama deficits are in a league of their own. On average, Obama's plan would generate trillion-dollar deficits for the next 10 years, with chilling implications for future tax rates and the government's financial health.
The tea party protests recall the Ross Perot phenomenon of the early 1990s. Then as now, the basic concerns were massive federal spending and the size of government. Then as now, the movement blossomed outside the confines of traditional Democratic-Republican politics.
Perot, however, provided leadership and focus, and that's what's lacking now. "There are too many issues embedded in this single protest," said political scientist George Connor of Missouri State University. "I don't see these numbers generating a national wave. I just don't see it."
Maybe, maybe not. Obama's budget and his radical agenda have triggered an angry, nationwide protest. The next several months will provide hints as to whether the leaderless Republicans, still casting about for fresh ideas, can translate some of that anger into real support for candidates.
E. Thomas McClanahan is a member of the Kansas City Star editorial board.
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