Why the Tea Party isn't opposing Obama's position on Libya.
For now the second argument is winning out with most Tea Party activists, largely because they've got their eyes trained elsewhere.
"We can't fight every battle at the same time," says Russo. "We've chosen to focus on getting America's fiscal house in order."
There could be more Tea Party criticism of the Libya strategy if the conflict drags on. On Monday, Jenny Beth Martin of Tea Party Patriots told me that the group may poll members to determine whether they should take a stance. If CNN's poll on Libya is right, TPP might find itself taking the pro-Obama, anti-Ron Paul line on Libya. The poll, conducted from March 18 to March 20, found 70 percent of all voters favoring a no-fly zone. Among "Tea Party supporters," it was 73 percent. Fifty-four percent of all voters favored attacks "directly targeted at Gaddafi's troops who are fighting the opposition forces in Libya." That number rose to 58 percent among Tea Partiers.
There are individual Tea Party leaders, like Williams or Rand Paul, who wince at a military intervention undertaken like this. The Tea Party is libertarian in plenty of ways. But if it has one defining characteristic, it's that it's nationalist. If there's a way to remove Qaddafi decades after he aided the Lockerbie bombers, then that's more important than a debate over the deep thoughts of the founders. In a Saturday interview with Fox News, Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., one of the most popular politicians to win the support of the Tea Party, explained that his problem with the intervention was about grit, not the Constitution.
"Back two or three weeks ago," said West, "we could have taken care of this situation if we had done the exact same thing that Ronald Reagan did back in the early '80s to Muammar Gaddafi, when he dropped the bomb in his back yard. Muammar Gaddafi didn't say a word for the next 30 years."
Qaddafi has actually remained influential and powerful since the bombing West referred to. But that's almost beside the point. The Republicans who are more worried about Libya than the Constitution's strictures on war powers are speaking for most of the Tea Party.
On Monday, Rep. Jason Chaffetz was in Utah, doing multiple interviews about his stance: that the president should have come to Congress. One of the people he spoke to was David Kirkham, a founding Tea Party activist in Utah. He disagreed with Chaffetz.
"I think his concern was money, among other things," said Kirkham. "There are some good things you have to spend money on. If we're the leaders of the free world, we cannot stand by when a tyrant kills his own civilians. Constitutionally speaking, Congress has the power to declare wars, but I don't think the founding fathers intended us to never intervene."
Correction, March 23, 2011: This article originally stated that the United States last declared war in 1941. The United States last officially declared war on June 5, 1942, against Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph of Rand Paul by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.