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Are the Tea Parties Getting a Bum Rap?

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Mona Charen of National Review Online notes that major media outside of Fox News either ignored the tax day tea parties or took an adversarial tone in reporting on them. Charen rightly notes that part of the problem is that Fox News promoted and actively participated in the events, giving other news outlets the excuse that the tea parties were illegitimate. But does that make the frustrations of the attendees illegitimate as well?

Charen points out that maybe tea party participants deserve more credit for their concerns. Writing about a specific attendee who was confronted by a CNN reporter, Charen says:

Perhaps [the stimulus and tax credit don’t] buy his support because he is skeptical that his taxes can remain low when the federal government is embarked on a record-shattering spending spree. He may be offended by the bailout culture, and worried that the obligations of taxpayers cannot remain low when it seems that every irresponsible borrower, failed car company, and free spending state is being rescued by the federal government. Additionally, he may be dubious that the government will spend the money wisely. It has been rumored that government spending has produced waste, fraud, inefficiency, and corruption. But he also may simply believe that engorging the government and enfeebling the private sector — no matter who is writing the checks — is not good for the economic or spiritual health of the country.

Or maybe he believes President Obama is leading us towards a socialist, totalitarian state where capitalism will be discouraged and guns will be forbidden. And that’s the problem with these tea parties. From my observations, it’s hard to separate the reasonable complaints from the outlandish accusations. Too many people associated with these groups have reached for ridiculous rhetoric rather than formulating smart, convincing critiques.

That said, the reasonable pro tea party argument laid out by Charen is a difficult one to disseminate without losing people’s attention. Fiscal responsibility is not something on which great slogans or firebrand speeches are built (although Ross Perot did a pretty good job with the issue back in the day). Unfortunately, overstating the risks of fiscal irresponsibility ruins the credibility of the critic. As of yet, the tea party organization has not found the right balance between firing up the populace and presenting a consistently reasonable argument free from rightwing chicanery.

The good news for the tea parties is that they have time to perfect their message and move away from the controlling influence of Fox News and other powerbrokers who make the organization seem more like a coordinated campaign than a grassroots movement. It would be nice to see the group become an alternative to the sedentary, bitter, social-conservative dominated Republican Party. But the group could also just become a MoveOn.org of the right — more partisan tool than positive force.