Until now, the tea party's constant talk about liberty has been mostly associated with a freedom from taxes and "Obama-care." That perception may have changed, though, when 26 Republicans, including nine freshmen, joined Democrats to defeat a bill to renew Patriot Act provisions that give the government expanded powers to spy on Americans and seize their records in the name of fighting terrorism.
"I will continue to support a strong national defense that does not infringe upon the rights of Americans," said one of the GOP opponents, Rep. Bobby Schilling of Illinois.
Can tea partiers and civil libertarians continue to find common ground? What would that mean for the fight against terrorism? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, debate the issue.
It is appropriate the Patriot Act renewal was defeated the same week reports emerged that former President George W. Bush had canceled a trip to Switzerland, largely to avoid the possibility of criminal charges for approving the torture of terror suspects in the aftermath of 9/11.
For one week, at least, the gap between the tea party's rhetoric and the reality of Republican governance was narrowed. It had been embarrassing to see conservatives decry "tyranny" in the form of slightly higher marginal tax rates and entitlement programs, all while offering silent acquiescence - or full-throated support - to the government's efforts to conduct warrantless wiretaps on Americans, operate secret prisons abroad, waterboard terror suspects, and then to try those suspects before the kangaroo courts known as military commissions.
The gap remains, however. While nine new Republican lawmakers voted against the Patriot Act renewal, 78 other GOP freshmen - many backed by the tea party - voted for it. And as President Bush's failed trip to Switzerland demonstrates, the United States has still failed to come to terms with the fallout from its worst actions after 9/11.
If those Republicans want to strike a blow for freedom - and embarrass President Obama in the process - they can push to close down Guantanamo Bay prison, hold public hearings about White House plans to assassinate American terror suspects abroad, and call for the prosecution of Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, John Yoo, and anybody else suspected of breaking the law (and American values) in the name of the War on Terror. They'd be striking a blow for freedom that many liberals hoped would come from a Democratic president.
Anybody can vote against the Patriot Act. Real civil libertarians prosecute Dick Cheney.
Prosecuting Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney and Yoo may satisfy a faction of political liberals and leftists who abhorred the conduct of the war against Islamic terrorists after 9/11. It would also set up future administrations for similar acts of political retribution. Rather than vindicate civil liberties, we would devolve further into political chaos.
But at the very least, political show trials of reviled ex-government officials would be a nice diversion from the seemingly intractable problem of U.S. government spending and debt. Currently, government debt hovers somewhere between 60-70 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product, and Congress may vote very soon to raise the debt ceiling from its current stratospheric perch of $14.3 trillion.
Restoring fiscal sanity and preserving liberty go hand in hand.
Limiting government's reach into Americans' lives, whether through surveillance or an ever-burgeoning bureaucracy, is at the core of the tea party movement's appeal.
The Patriot Act vote should put to rest the idea that the tea party movement is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party. When Republican leaders cannot win what would have been a "slam dunk" vote in 2005, something has changed.
At the same time, the vote reveals the limits of tea party libertarianism. Under a different rule, Congress could have extended the Patriot Act with a simple majority. The tea party caucus doesn't have the numbers to stop the next vote, and members are far from united on the question. Even as some freshmen voted against the bill, tea party darling Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn., voted for it.
The optimism and energy the tea party brings to politics can be intoxicating, especially for voters frustrated with the status quo.
But it's important to remember that politics is the art of picking one's battles. Limiting the reach of the surveillance state makes sense. But ending the cycle of debt and spending should be the focus.
If the tea party Republicans can't get that one right, it's over.
RedBlueAmerica columnists Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk are distributed by Scripps Howard News Service. Boychuk (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Mathis (email@example.com) blog regularly at www.somewhatreasonable.com and joelmathis.blogspot.com.