Weak Tea

Why the Tea Party isn’t opposing Obama’s position on Libya.

Sen. Rand Paul is one of few in the Tea Party to oppose the Libya intervention

Over the last couple of days, since the United States joined in establishing a United Nations no-fly zone over northern Libya, Mark Williams has been yelling at Fox News and agreeing with liberals. Why are we there? Why was the intervention kicked off by a U.N. vote and not a vote in Congress?

“Dennis Kucinich and I find ourselves in the rare position of being joined at the hip,” says Williams. “What the hell is the endgame in Libya? Is it to take Qaddafi out or not? There’s a vast gulf of difference between aiding to help an ally recover from a catastrophe, like Japan, and jumping in here to subsidize European security and the security of despotic tribesmen.”

These musings about war, peace, and presidential power are coming from a man whom liberals associate with the worst of the Tea Party. As the spokesman for the Tea Party Express in 2009 and 2010, he called President Obama an “Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug” and a bunch of other things. He left the Express after a satirical email to the NAACP offended basically everyone. He’s now a radio host and author who wonders what, exactly, is the point of a movement focused on the Constitution if it lets the president get away with launching military strikes without asking Congress for permission.

“We’ve got the Constitution of this country being absolutely ravaged,” he says. “There is no governing authority except for the people of the United States or, if it grows a set of testicles, the U.S. Congress. And it would take all the radiation coming out of Fukushima to make the members of Congress grow anything.”

In 1973, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution. It was supposed to require presidents to explain themselves to Congress within 48 hours of launching military actions and ask for some official declaration of hostility within 58 days after that.

And so, on Monday, Obama issued a presidential message to Congress explaining why he’d joined an “international effort” and “began a series of strikes against air defense systems and military airfields for the purposes of preparing a no-fly zone.”

This was the 119th message of its kind since the passage of the War Powers Resolution. It was the first since the rise of the Tea Party, the conservative movement that defines everything it does as a way to keep faith with the Constitution. So the relative lack of Tea Party angst over the no-fly zone has been surprising. There is no discussion of Libya happening at Ginni Thomas’ Liberty Central, no statement from Tea Party Patriots or the Tea Party Express.

Quite a few liberal Democrats have come out and criticized the president. There were more Democrats who criticized President George W. Bush during the run-up to Iraq, but there have been enough to generate real heat for the White House. It was Kucinich, rather than a Republican, who first floated the idea that the strikes on Libya might be grounds for impeachment; Newt Gingrich, who mused that Obama could be impeached for failing to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, hasn’t gone that far. Half a dozen Republicans who identify with the Tea Party have criticized the Obama administration’s shoot-first-ask-Congress-later approach, but most Republicans haven’t.

“This is a hot debate, the debate over war powers,” says Sal Russo, the consultant behind the Tea Party Express. “One of the big components of the Tea Party is the activists who want federal government to get back to a narrow reading of what government can do. That’s in keeping with the overall idea that our founders created a limited government.”

But the question isn’t quite settled. Historians can point to the arguments that James Madison made about war powers, or the uses Thomas Jefferson made of those powers in the presidency, and come to at least two conclusions. One: The founders saw a proper role for unilateral executive military decisions in some limited cases, and presidents don’t always need to get declarations of war. (There hasn’t been an official declaration of war in the United States since 1942. *) Two: The founders may have said that, but until the Cold War era, Congress did take a role in these interventions, and presidents deferred.

For now the second argument is winning out with most Tea Party activists, largely because they’ve got their eyes trained elsewhere.

“We can’t fight every battle at the same time,” says Russo. “We’ve chosen to focus on getting America’s fiscal house in order.”

There could be more Tea Party criticism of the Libya strategy if the conflict drags on. On Monday, Jenny Beth Martin of Tea Party Patriots told me that the group may poll members to determine whether they should take a stance. If CNN’s poll on Libya is right, TPP might find itself taking the pro-Obama, anti-Ron Paul line on Libya. The poll, conducted from March 18 to March 20, found 70 percent of all voters favoring a no-fly zone. Among “Tea Party supporters,” it was 73 percent. Fifty-four percent of all voters favored attacks “directly targeted at Gaddafi’s troops who are fighting the opposition forces in Libya.” That number rose to 58 percent among Tea Partiers.

There are individual Tea Party leaders, like Williams or Rand Paul, who wince at a military intervention undertaken like this. The Tea Party is libertarian in plenty of ways. But if it has one defining characteristic, it’s that it’s nationalist. If there’s a way to remove Qaddafi decades after he aided the Lockerbie bombers, then that’s more important than a debate over the deep thoughts of the founders. In a Saturday interview with Fox News, Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., one of the most popular politicians to win the support of the Tea Party, explained that his problem with the intervention was about grit, not the Constitution.

“Back two or three weeks ago,” said West, “we could have taken care of this situation if we had done the exact same thing that Ronald Reagan did back in the early ‘80s to Muammar Gaddafi, when he dropped the bomb in his back yard. Muammar Gaddafi didn’t say a word for the next 30 years.”

Qaddafi has actually remained influential and powerful since the bombing West referred to. But that’s almost beside the point. The Republicans who are more worried about Libya than the Constitution’s strictures on war powers are speaking for most of the Tea Party.

On Monday, Rep. Jason Chaffetz was in Utah, doing multiple interviews about his stance: that the president should have come to Congress. One of the people he spoke to was David Kirkham, a founding Tea Party activist in Utah. He disagreed with Chaffetz.

“I think his concern was money, among other things,” said Kirkham. “There are some good things you have to spend money on. If we’re the leaders of the free world, we cannot stand by when a tyrant kills his own civilians. Constitutionally speaking, Congress has the power to declare wars, but I don’t think the founding fathers intended us to never intervene.”

Correction, March 23, 2011: This article originally stated that the United States last declared war in 1941. The United States last officially declared war on June 5, 1942, against Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania. (Return to the corrected sentence.)