Could the Tea Party revive the antiwar movement?

Ted Balaker Contributor
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Earlier this month came word that the White House would send an additional 1,400 Marine combat forces to Afghanistan. Yet the announcement was met with a shrug from the antiwar movement. Why? Perhaps it’s because the figure represents a tiny uptick from the additional 30,000 troops the president committed to the region more than a year ago. Or perhaps it’s because the president who approved both escalations is named Obama, not Bush. It turns out that much of the antiwar movement is little more than an anti-George W. Bush movement.

The White House may have switched from Team Red to Team Blue two years ago, but US foreign policy has exhibited tremendous continuity since then. When President Obama isn’t sending more troops to Afghanistan, he’s pushing the withdrawal date further and further into the future (latest estimate is 2014, but even that’s far from a sure thing). Obama declared an end to combat operations in Iraq, but 50,000 troops remain. That may not have satisfied the antiwar movement during Bush’s tenure, but few protesters are getting riled up about it today. According to a University of Michigan survey, attendance at antiwar rallies plunged in 2008 when it looked increasingly likely that the antiwar candidate would take the White House.

Plenty of registered Democrats might have reviled Bush and his policies, but to them he was just doing what evil Republicans do. That the one who promised hope and change has delivered more of the same on a wide range of War on Terror policies should have ignited additional animosity. And although some on the left are enraged, widespread anger among Democrats is harder to find. In 2003, only 22 percent of Democrats approved of Bush’s foreign policy, but in 2010, 78 percent told Quinnipiac pollsters they were just fine with Obama’s very similar foreign policy.

Back in 2003 a traffic-stopping Hollywood extravaganza headlined by Martin Sheen was just one of the many ruckus antiwar rallies you could find. If you look hard enough, you can still come across some antiwar rallies today, but don’t expect much in the way of big celebrities or big crowds. Recently, Reason.tv attended two LA-area antiwar rallies whose combined attendance measured in the dozens. One rally was organized by libertarians, the other by the socialist-friendly organization ANSWER. Where were the Prius and Pilates Democrats so common to West LA? Turns out our protesters’ demographics roughly mirrored the findings of University of Michigan researchers who discovered that, since Obama’s inauguration, antiwar rallies are more likely to be populated by people who claim third-party or no-party affiliation, and less likely to be populated by Democrats.

Not that Team Red is any more principled, for it seems the tendency to fear parties more than policies is as bipartisan as the Obushama War on Terror. But why not seize the moment for what is supposedly the GOP’s top priority — spending cuts. It’s easy for Republicans to squawk about axing tiny programs loved by the left (defund NPR!), but they’ll gain more credibility if they propose cuts to giant programs cherished by their side.

Last week conservative big shot Grover Norquist did just that. The Americans for Tax Reform president announced his plan to assemble a center-right coalition to discuss pulling out of Afghanistan in order to save hundreds of billions of dollars. Would GOP voters buy such hippie talk?

Contrary to so much present-day GOP rhetoric, the hippie-fication of the antiwar movement is fairly new, kicking in during the Vietnam era. But the Old Right of the early part of the 20th century had strong non-interventionist inclinations and, according to recent polls, today’s rank-and-file right is still imbued with a good deal of that sentiment. Third Eye Strategies reports that majorities of conservatives and Tea Partiers are friendly to the idea of a dramatic draw-down in Afghanistan.

And why not? True conservatives recognize that, whether it’s public education or national defense, more spending doesn’t guarantee better results. Who knows, maybe some of the Tea Party folks could help revive those flaccid antiwar rallies.

Reason.tv’s Ted Balaker is senior producer on the documentary short, “What Happened to the Antiwar Movement?,” which is written and produced by Zach Weissmueller.