Well, I went to the New York City tea party on Thursday, and not just because a beautiful woman had asked me to. It took place at the big Farley Post Office, which was being kept open until midnight to accommodate late tax filers. When I arrived, I saw a few dozen people with signs standing around on the post-office steps. This turned out to be a counter-demonstration by what looked like a Larouchie group. The protesters’ main bugaboo was the Federal Reserve, which they seemed to blame for everything from global warming to the Rangers’ failure to make the playoffs.
The actual tea party was held just south of the post office. I got there at the starting time of 7:00 p.m., hoping to find the woman who had invited me, but by that point there were about 1,000 people there (the final crowd was closer to 2,000), crowded into two lanes of Eighth Avenue, with taxis whizzing by a few feet away. Instead of standing inside the police barricades, I took my place across the street, because the first rule of outdoor events is that the worst spot acoustically is always where they put the audience. Through some quirk, in the place I was standing, the sound was so clear that you could practically hear the speakers blink — except every few minutes when subway noise came up through the grating in the sidewalk. The 99-cent pizza store at 30th Street was doing a great business among the thrifty tea partiers. (But would you make everyone eat 99-cent pizza, and charge them $4.50 for it? That’s the central question of Obamacare.)
The early speakers concentrated on getting the crowd fired up. Then came one who calmly and methodically laid out the case against big government, both in Obamacare and in financial reform. During the latter part, the crowd’s cheers were muted, especially when she stuck up for the rights of big financial firms to get bigger, which may or may not be good economics but is iffy politics and didn’t entirely fit the crowd’s populist sympathies. She ended by exhorting everyone to “educate your friends and families and co-workers about these issues” — an unnecessary piece of advice, since most New Yorkers are already in the habit of educating everyone they know.
A couple of speakers later, a somewhat didactic man read from one of John Adams’s letters and then asked, “When the colonists declared independence, what were they declaring independence from?” Great Britain? King George? Nope: “They were declaring independence from government!” He went on for several more minutes about how “government is the enemy!” — after which the MC came back out, waved a flyer from the Socialist Workers Party, and boasted that, in contrast to them, the tea-party organizers had obtained an official permit for the rally. He also asked people loitering on the sidewalk to help the police by moving inside the official barriers.
According to my hastily scribbled notes, the next speaker was named Ksnbhut Tkponsy, or possibly Tkpamiv, and he said, “Jwhikth kqt tme asldpwa tslt nsxk” — vigorously and in ringing tones, I’m sure. After that, KT McFarland gave a spirited speech in which she decried the influence of lobbyists and fundraisers, explained how sleazy politics had led to the mortgage crisis, and said today’s politicians have adopted a policy of “charge it forward” (“Remember that move that came out about ten years ago called Pay It Forward?” she asked, and got about three yeses). She also complimented the honest folks in Nebraska who rejected Sen. Ben Nelson’s Cornhusker Kickback, then ended with repeated chants of “Throw the Bums Out!”
At this point, the rock band that had warmed up the crowd came back and played a couple more songs. The first one, which seemed to be called “No More Tax,” began with the words, “Get your hands off my checkbook . . .” Sounds incongruous for a bunch of scruffy rockers, until you remember that the Beatles recorded something quite similar, as have many other well-known bands. Anyway, they were nice and loud but kind of grindy, and I don’t mean that in an entirely good way. My colleague Robert VerBruggen would probably have rated them 2 out of 5.
While they were playing, a well-informed but talkative guy who had worked in the Giuliani administration came up to me on the sidewalk and said the key to Republican success in New York City lies in winning the votes of immigrants. The important point to remember, he said, is that they want to improve themselves, work long hours, make a lot of money, and keep as much of it as they can. So the city should cut social services but spend a lot on public schools and colleges, keeping tuition at the latter as low as possible. “Whereas Obama’s plan,” he said, “is to give everyone $200,000 to go to NYU, and then when you graduate and become a teacher, they’ll forgive the loan.” There were a few more speakers, including a College Republicans type, and then Lou Dobbs came on and gave a rousing finale, which will probably end up being his stump speech when he runs for senator.
Overall, the event was inspiring, and more positive than negative. It’s not often that you hear people in New York talking about patriotism and hard work and God without irony. Admittedly, if I were [insert name of your favorite Obamacon here], I would have curled my lip at the rhetorical inelegance that some of the speakers displayed, and it’s true that many of their proposed solutions were on the simplistic side. But in their passionate way, the tea partiers, in New York and elsewhere, see something that the technocrats and policy analysts don’t. What America needs is a major reduction of the size and scope of government, not Obama-style expansion or a few modest tweaks and adjustments. The only way to get this idea across to those in power will be for the voters to pick Congress up and shake it nice and hard. And if the GOP wants to be the shaker instead of the shakee, it needs to look past the occasional crude phrase and listen to the substance of the tea partiers’ message.