Commentary

Are Tea Partiers Protesting Enough of Obama’s Sins?

Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey has become a leading presence in the tea-party movement as chairman of the FreedomWorks organization, with its many thousands of volunteers across the nation working for limited government and more individual freedom. As a civil libertarian, I was first surprised and impressed by Armey when he vigorously opposed, as House majority leader, Bush administration Attorney General John Ashcroft’s Operation TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System).

As described on the government’s citizen-corps website, “millions of American truckers, letter carriers, utility employees” were provided “a formal way to report on suspicious terrorist activity” by calling a “toll-free hotline number to be directly connected to a proper law-enforcement agency.” How more vaguely defined could “suspicious” be?

This conservative House majority leader, in a markup section, also defied President Bush by striking out the Operation TIPS section of the Homeland Security bill — emphasizing: “Citizens will not become informants.” At the time, I wondered what then—Vice President Dick Cheney thought of that!

Then, Armey made me cheer when, on his retirement, in his farewell address at the National Press Club in December 2002, he warned: “We the people had better keep an eye on … our government.” And hear this! Addressing Bush, Cheney, Ashcroft et al., Armey asked:

How do you use the tools we have given you to make us safe in such a manner that’ll preserve our freedom? … Freedom is no policy for the timid. And my plaintive plea to all my colleagues that remain in this government as I leave it is, for our sake, for my sake, for heaven’s sake, don’t give up on freedom!

That reminded me of Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black’s always contemporary message to all Americans: “Don’t be afraid to be free!”

Consider what has happened to our individual constitutional liberties since December 2002, under George W. Bush — and also clearly Barack Obama, who, as I continually report, has in his first term been even more abusive of our privacy and the separation of powers and (never even conceived by Bush) has bullied through a health-care law that hastens the rationing of health care, including the rationing of some of our very lives.

Armey now knows well that the Obama administration’s commitment is not to preserving our freedoms. Thomas Jefferson’s call to us over the centuries is acutely pertinent: “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. … They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

I recognize that no one person or organization speaks for all the tea partiers. Indeed, in July, when the first House Tea Party Caucus began to operate in Congress, the caucus’s chairwoman, Republican Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, was very careful to caution: “We’re not the mouthpiece. We are not taking the tea party and controlling it from Washington, D.C.” (New York Times, July 22)

However, we all know the impact tea-party members can have when they organize for specific purposes. More than any other opponents of Obama’s health-care legislation, tea partiers awakened citizens across party lines to the chilling prospect that, for many of us who are dependent on government payments for our care, Obama’s regulators, not our own doctors, will have the power to decide which medicines and procedures are too expensive for the government to continue for us.

And increasingly, in various states tea-party members are pivotally deciding the results of elections.

But if tea-party members are to succeed in bringing back the Constitution into the lives of all of us — a Constitution many of them carry in their pockets, as Justice Hugo Black did — how much do they know and care about other crucial personal liberties Obama is canceling? And if Armey is concerned about these freedoms, to what extent can he effectively share that concern with enough tea partiers to get those liberties back?

To begin, I look at the agenda and priorities of FreedomWorks, of which he is chairman. On its website, there are calls for free trade; repeal of the death tax; Social Security personal retirement accounts that “workers own and control”; fighting to keep the Internet tax-free; enactment of the flat tax; work, not welfare; opposition to the DISCLOSE Act; and other concerns that would appear to be harmonious with insistent views of many tea partiers.

What I do not find at FreedomWorks and in reports of tea-party campaigns and actions is persistent resistance to Obama’s expansion of our being under pervasive government surveillance, as when last year, in Jewel vs. National Security Agency, his Justice Department made so imperious a claim of presidential “sovereign immunity” that “the U.S. can never be sued for spying that violated federal surveillance statutes, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act or the Wiretap Act.”

Also, there is Obama’s frequent invocation of “state secrets” to entirely close down lawsuits before evidence is even heard on government violations of the Constitution; his insistence on the need for permanent detention of terrorism suspects who cannot be tried in military commissions or our federal courts because alleged evidence against them has been extracted by torture. Forget our rule of law!

And what of the increasing presidential authorization of targeted killings by CIA pilotless Predator and Reaper drone planes in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen that are wholly extrajudicial, and anger of civilians there because of the corollary inadvertent killing of their family members and relatives? Moreover, does Dick Armey acquiesce in the increasing use of pilotless drones in this country for government surveillance? And, abroad, what’s his reaction to an American citizen on a CIA list of targeted killings by drones, with more to come?

I much admired Armey’s courageous constitutional concern for our personal liberties when he was the House majority leader. And I’ve written admiringly of the tea party’s acting on Samuel Adams’ challenge: “It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate tireless minority to set brushfires in people’s minds.”

But there is more tea partiers and Dick Armey can do to remind us why we are Americans — because, I repeat, Thomas Jefferson warned: “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. … They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights and author of many books, including The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance.