First, I'll state the obvious: It's not racist to criticize President Obama, it's not racist to have conservative views, and it's not racist to join the Tea Party. But there's something about the nature and tone of the most vitriolic attacks on the president that I believe is distinctive - and difficult to explain without asking whether race is playing a role.
So what is so distinctive? He doesn't really offer anything new, just the same old complaints. His first one was Rand Paul saying that if they win then "we get to go to Washington and take back our government." Robinson then takes issue with this phrase.
Somehow he missed that the left has been using this phrase for decades with no racial connotation. The theme of President Clinton's first inauguration was "taking back America." In 2006, Democratic strategist James Carvelle wrote a book titled Take It Back: A Battle Plan for Democratic Victory. Howard Dean, past head of the Democratic National Committee wrote a book entitled You Have the Power: How to Take Back Our Country and Restore Democracy in America. Obviously the right lifted the phrase from the left. Twisting it to mean "Take America back from the dark-skinned man in the White House" makes a mockery of Robinson's earlier statement that it is ok to criticize the President.
So who stole the government? What makes some people feel more disenfranchised now than they were, say, during the presidency of George W. Bush?
After all, it was Bush who inherited a budget surplus and left behind a suffocating deficit - I'm not being tendentious, just stating the facts. It was Bush who launched two wars without making any provision in the budget to pay for them, who proposed and won an expensive new prescription-drug entitlement without paying for it, who bailed out irresponsible Wall Street firms with the $700 billion TARP program.
Bush was vilified by critics while he was in office but not with the suggestion that somehow the government had been seized or usurped - that it had fallen into hands that were not those of "the American people." Yet this is the Tea Party suggestion about Obama.
There are two point here. I've already pointed out that there were lots of suggestions that the government had been seized. So what about Bush's spending?
Robinson is playing a little fast and loose with the facts. Yes, the surplus turned into a deficit under Bush. Some of that was Bush's fault but the surplus was not going to last regardless of who was in the White House. Bush's deficits were fairly mild, at least by Obama standards. Bush's highest deficit is still lower than Obama's lowest projected deficit. His deficits didn't spike until 2008 when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.
Robinson's statements fail to give any proportion to Bush's spending. Bush's prescription-drug benefit is expensive. It will cost around a trillion dollars over ten years. His wars were also expensive. Iraq cost around $600 billion over six years. Those two examples come to around $110 billion per year. Compare that with Obama's stimulus which is over $800 billion over two years.
Then there is the TARP. The Bush administration proposed it but it passed a Democrat-controlled Congress. Obama voted for it. What's more, it was divided into two parts. Bush could spend the first half with the second half held over to Obama's administration. So blame for the TARP gets spread equally. There was some outrage when it was first proposed and the Republicans voted it down the first time. There were only a few months between when the TARP passed and when the Tea Party protests began.
Underlying all the Tea Party's issues and complaints, it appears to me, is the entirely legitimate issue of the relationship between the individual and the federal government. But why would this concern about oppressive, intrusive government become so acute now? Why didn't, say, government surveillance of domestic phone calls and e-mails get the constitutional fundamentalists all worked up?
Robinson throws out the term "domestic phone calls" without qualifying that this only happened when one end of the conversation was overseas. It makes a big difference. It also makes a difference that the surveillance involves a very real threat as last weekend's attempted airplane bombings show. It also makes a difference that the Obama administration renewed the Patriot Act.
But the possibility that a government agent was listening in on an overseas call does not affect people's daily life - not the way that taking over GM and closing half of its divisions does and the Bush administration never passed legislation requiring everyone to purchase insurance. Obama's government is insinuating itself into everyday life in ways that never happened under Bush.
I wonder how he can be seen as "elitist," when he grew up in modest circumstances - his mother was on food stamps for a time - and paid for his fancy-pants education with student loans.
I ask myself what's so different about Obama, and the answer is pretty obvious: He's black. For whatever reason, I think this makes some people unsettled, anxious, even suspicious - witness the willingness of so many to believe absurd conspiracy theories about Obama's birthplace, his religion and even his absent father's supposed Svengali-like influence from the grave.
There is one final point that Robinson overlooks about the Tea Party - it is not all about Obama. Nancy Pelosi is a close second in their rancor. Once you admit that then Obama's skin color becomes insignificant.
So what is different about Obama? He came into office claiming to be a transformative president, one who would change the nation's course from the path it has been on since Reagan and onto the path of increasing government. Granted Obama turned out to me more of a partisan hack than an inspired leader but by the time that became obvious the Tea Party already existed. After years of being ignored by both parties, the small government advocates are not going to shut up and go home.
So, why did Robinson write this nasty column? He's probably depressed about the election and wanted to throw one more "racist" bomb at them out of frustration.