Here's my first impression of the tea party movement: It's a rabidly right-wing phenomenon with a shaky grasp of history, a strain of intolerance and xenophobia, a paranoia about Barack Obama, and an unhealthy reverence for Fox News. Any movement that doesn't firmly exclude Birchers, birthers and Islamaphobes is not a movement for me.
Here's my second impression of the tea party movement: We are lucky to have it.
That's because the tea partiers, who may not all agree on gay marriage or birthright citizenship, are united behind a couple of sound goals: curtailing the cost of government and refusing to live at the expense of future generations. Those are goals that, for eight years, had many rhetorical supporters in Washington, but few authentic champions.
Blame that on George W. Bush, who arrived billing himself as a compassionate conservative, a description that was accurate except for the adjective and the noun. Whatever his ideology, his policy was to expand federal spending at a rate unseen since President Lyndon Johnson, the architect of the Great Society.
He didn't do it alone, though. Had Bush been a Democrat, Republicans would have fought his budget plans at every turn. But since he was one of theirs, they joined in the spree with gusto, even as they cut taxes and piled up deficits.
The prevailing attitude was: Live it up now, and let someone else worry about paying for it later. Budget hawks were left wondering what happened to Republican tightwads, who thought every dollar spent by the government was a dollar that had to be justified as a vital necessity.
The tea partiers were dismayed to see these penny-pinchers replaced by poll-driven insiders with an appetite for earmarks. That's one big reason hard-right candidates have scored so many upsets in recent GOP Senate primaries -- including Rand Paul in Kentucky, Sharron Angle in Nevada, Joe Miller in Alaska and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware.
They didn't get nominated because they look and sound like the popular image of a savvy, experienced, well-informed, practical-minded U.S. senator. They got nominated because they don't.
They are often accused of craziness -- one MSNBC commentator said Angle "sounds like a mental patient." But to the tea partiers, that's not a bug; it's a feature. If a $1.4 trillion federal budget deficit represents sanity, they would prefer a candidate who escaped from the psych ward.