At last week's Tea Party rally in San Francisco, protesters waved signs with slogans including "Overtaxation is Tyranny," "A Debt We Can Never Clear," and "No More Bailouts." Some signs blamed President Obama, saying "ObamaNomics: Chains We Can Believe In."
Critiques of taxes and bailouts are worthy sentiments, of course. The U.S. income tax system is broken, with an astonishing 43.4 percent of American "taxpayers"; while those that do see their checks to such deserving causes as AIG, Goldman Sachs, and large European banks.
But the problem with the Tea Party movement is that the same complaints can be lodged against former President George W. Bush. It was the Bush administration thatAIG; it Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; it Citigroup; it Bear Stearns. And it was the Bush administration that to bail out Detroit automakers.
Where were those hand-printed signs last week -- or last year -- assailing "BushNomics?" Where were these same conservatives when the Republicans and the Federal Reserve were on a bailout bender last year? Or when the GOPof the federal debt?
Plus, if you want to get technical, it was the Republicans who raised taxes every year by increasing the amount of income subject to Social Security taxes, and it was Mr. Bush who a huge hike that would have raised those taxes far more.
The uncomfortable truth is that the conservative movement has lost its way. It probably won't be able to find the path toward limited government and fiscal responsibility until it distances itself from Mr. Bush and his allies among Beltway Republicans.
In the 1990s, Beltway conservatives railed against Clintonian military skirmishes like Kosovo, saying the Europeans could handle their own problems. Then, in the 2000s, they championed Bush's far more expensive -- and, as it turns out, -- invasion and occupation of Iraq.
In the 1990s, Beltway conservatives protested an FBI Internet-wiretapping device originally called Carnivore and renamed DCS1000. They held oversight hearings about the Clinton-era FBI and electronic privacy. Then, in the 2000s, many invented novel excuses for the Bush administration's warrantless, and probably illegal, surveillance.
In the 1990s, Beltway conservatives denounced President Clinton's relatively modest budgets as "more domestic spending" and "bigger deficits." The outcry was minimal when Mr. Bush kicked off far larger deficit spending programs including the whopping while with billions more in domestic spending than he had requested from Congress.
In other words, after Mr. Bush's election and after 9/11, Beltway conservatives flip-flopped: deficits were no longer a problem, the so-called War on Terror trumped privacy, and unnecessary military adventurism became wars vital to national security.
Some amount of bipartisan hypocrisy has always existed, of course. When a party is out of power, it tends to be more critical, and many of the same Democrats who yowled about civil liberties under Bush have been muted about the Obama administration's even more disturbing claims of police powers.
Still, political parties should stand for something. Two of the Republican Party's best lines have been its claims to stand for lower taxes and limited government -- never mind that wars are expensive and will be paid for by higher taxes, higher borrowing, or higher inflation. The 2008 Republican Party Platform looks positively embarrassing today; it says: "We do not support government bailouts of private institutions. Government interference in the markets exacerbates problems in the marketplace and causes the free market to take longer to correct itself."
Last week's Tea Parties were a welcome conservative protest against bailouts and government spending run amok. But the lack of conservative protests against Mr. Bush's own bailouts-and-spending-run-amok policies over the last eight years lends the Tax Day rallies an unfortunate partisan overtone. (It was the libertarians who remained, for the most part, true to their principles.)
Not until the Republican Party can admit that Mr. Bush was no conservative, and distances itself from his more unfortunate policies, will it be able to regain its footing and offer an alternative to the Democrats. The time for this is now: the midterm elections are not that far away.
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Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET and a CBS News EconWatch contributor. Previously, he was Wired's Washington bureau chief and a reporter for Time.com and Time magazine in Washington, D.C. He has taught journalism, public policy, and First Amendment law. He is an occasional programmer, avid analog and digital photographer, and lives with his wife in the San Francisco Bay area.