The Big Apple Circus is set up in Government Center, but the elephants and tumblers were merely a sideshow to the political theatrics unfolding on Boston Common today. The Tea Party Express rolled into town today, bringing throngs of anti-tax, anti-big government Massachusetts residents out of the cracks and crevices of the bluest state in the Union.
At center stage Wednesday was one Sarah Palin, the half-term former governor of Alaska who has recently become the public face and mouthpiece of the Tea Party Movement, which began during the 2008 election largely perceived as a radical fringe movement just angry at government in general — party notwithstanding. Today, given the fact that Palin, a Republican, is its spokeswoman, it’s safe to say the Tea Partiers have moved more in the direction of mainstream conservatism.
Palin took the stage at around 10:30 a.m. in front of an energetic crowd of sign-waving spectators. One day before tax returns are due, Palin immediately spoke out against the tax system, of course singling out what she believes are unfair tax burdens on Americans and their children.
"Americans now spend 100 days out of the year working for government before we even start working for ourselves," she said. "Goldberg just wrote that we are now headed toward being a country where instead of the people deciding how much money our government has, now it’s our government deciding how much money the people can have. That’s backwards, and we’re going to turn that around."
Many in the crowd waved small Gadsden Flags from 1775 which read, "Don’t Tread on Me," insinuating that the government treads on Americans with unfair taxes and expensive legislation. Palin singled out both the record-setting budget approved by the Obama administration earlier this year and, of course, health care reform.
"They’re obviously digging us into a deeper, darker hole, and that is insane," she said, "with their record-busting $3.8 trillion federal budget and their trillion-dollar-plus Obamacare scheme that they have rammed through, which is the mother of all unfunded mandates."
Palin’s speech left little doubt why she is one of the only energizing conservatives in America, and why whispers of presidential candidacy for the Alaskan grow louder every day. Wednesday, she gave those in the crowd what they came to hear — hard-nosed political rhetoric softened by her trademark small-town colloquial wit. She even worked a "drill, baby, drill!" into the speech, though strangely, she made no mention of President Obama’s move last month to expand off-shore drilling for oil.
The rally on the Common was an unlikely meeting place for politically engaged Massachusetts residents of all stripes. After a Socialist counter-protester and a Tea Party member exchanged heated remarks following Palin’s speech, two women nearby — one a young, left-leaning counter-protester and the other older and conservative — began a more civil dialogue about the role of government in providing jobs to all Americans.
"I don’t think socialism is the best solution," said Jean Michalozski, who drove into Boston from Holbrook.
The younger woman replied, "Well, we’re not there yet."
"Yeah, but we’re going there," Michalozski said. "That’s the next step. Government is taking over so many things."
"I think she’s very respectful, but she’s misled," Michalozski said. "I hope that at some point, she’ll see the light."
What is Michalozski’s ideal scenario for America?
"It would be the type of country we had when Reagan was in office," she said. "The less government, the better. I believe the government has major jobs defending us, but I don’t think they need to be in our homes."
"The more they tax us, the less strong the individual is. If they took care of only the essential things they are supposed to take care of, people would have more money to do charitable works."
Her conversation partner, of course, thinks that when social services are left primarily to individuals, the neediest Americans fall through the cracks. Therein lies the principle debate between the two most vocal political camps in a bitterly divided country: the size and role of the federal government. Michalozski said she would most likely vote for Sarah Palin in 2012.
"I think that she’s honest and down-to-earth, and likeable, but a key reason why I would vote for her is because she believes, as I do, in less government," Michalozski said.
Surprisingly, perhaps, similarly fierce but civil conversations could be heard all over the Common following the event. Though several shouting sessions broke out that quickly drew crowds and cameras, no violence was reported from Wednesday’s event.
Many in attendance simply appeared to be there for the show, walking over on their lunch break or snapping photos of the media-magnet Tea Party Express.
The Boston Common has long served as a neutral venue for protest and proselytizing from groups of all types. Regardless of one’s take on the political ideas of the Tea Party Movement, the right to dissent, as well as to free speech, was practiced en masse Wednesday. But as the Tea Party Express steams its way across America in 2010 in preparation for the fall mid-term elections, a central question remains: Will these rallies be enough to give conservatives a common voice that is loud enough to be heard at the polls in November?
Time will tell. For now, let’s all sit back, relax and enjoy the circus.