Steve Chapman

These outsiders profited from a belief that established ways of doing things have led us off a cliff, as well as a widespread alarm at fiscal excess. This combination was neatly, though crudely, captured by Carl Paladino, who won the Republican nomination for governor of New York, in his promise to "take a baseball bat to Albany."

Paladino vowed to kill the Islamic center near Ground Zero by using the state's eminent domain power to seize the property -- not exactly a small-government approach. With his incendiary rhetoric and fondness for racist jokes, he exemplifies the ugly side of the movement. But he would not have won the primary without his demand to curb public employee unions and slash state spending.

Conservatives are sometimes accused of being more interested in finding heretics than converts. Tea partiers offer a wrinkle on that. They are determined to root out RINOs (Republicans in Name Only), who they think have betrayed the party's economic principles. But in their own ranks, they seem happy to have everyone with an aversion to the enlargement of government, no matter how crackpot they may be on other issues.

Back in the 1990s, there was a cranky, conspiracy-minded Texas billionaire who had nightmares about free trade with Mexico and imagined that fixing government was as simple as fixing a car. Like Angle and Paladino, Ross Perot sometimes sounded as though he had gone off his meds.

But railing against budget deficits, he captured a staggering 19 percent of the vote as a third-party candidate in the 1992 presidential race against George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The movement he inspired helped force Democrats and Republicans in Washington to restrain expenditures, balance the federal budget and generally stop acting as though there was no tomorrow.

It would be a great thing if sensible, temperate, consistently libertarian citizens would mobilize en masse to force similar changes today. Until then, the tea party will have to do.

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Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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