By Ken Feltman
One man’s meat is another man’s poison.
– old proverb
Whatever you think you know about the Tea Party, you are probably wrong. Don’t be upset about that. Join the crowd: The leadership of both political parties and many talking heads from commercial, public and cable media are peddling theories that do not compute.
Some say that the Tea Party is unlike anything that American politics has seen since the 1773 Tea Party in Boston Harbor. And unless things change quickly, they predict that we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Others say we’ve been down this road before, perhaps in 1994 or maybe earlier. In an uncanny way, both statements are true: The Tea Party is different and the Tea Party is very like earlier outbursts of voter disgust with the governing elites.
Conventional wisdom suggests that the Tea Party is an outgrowth of the Republican Party. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Tea Party is the result of one of two of President George W. Bush’s legacies to the United States. One is two wars in the Middle East. The other, ballooning budgets and deficits, led to the Tea Party.
Independent voters and economic conservatives rebelled against bloated spending bills with deferred tax increases. They tossed Republicans out of office in 2006. In 2008 many latched onto Barack Obama, a charismatic messenger of bi-partisan governance. Providing the votes he needed to win, the independents had high hopes that Obama would end the partisan squabbling coming from Washington, cut spending, balance the budget, reduce the size and reach of government, create jobs, disengage in the Middle East and reduce taxes.
Instead, the partisanship intensified and Democrats put jobs aside to tackle healthcare reform. Disappointed, the independent voters began to give up on Obama. Deciding that they could trust neither party to do what they wanted, they went back to Square One. Just exactly where is that?
Square One is not where most politicians and pundits think it is. But the Tea Partiers know that Square One is not near Square Seventy-Eight. Huh? Let me explain.
At least since the Great Depression and the New Deal, the United States has edged ever more leftward – toward a social democracy, approaching Square One Hundred (100 percent of the way to socialism) and further and further away from pure, unadulterated capitalism, found at Square One (one percent along the road to public control of the economy). Consider Square One to be as conservative as can be and Square One Hundred as liberal as possible. Where are we today on this percentage scale?
We can debate where we are, but most would agree that we are a long way from Square One. Citizens like their government programs and the safety net they provide. The Interstate Highway program is great, but roads and bridges need maintenance. The Center for Disease Control is doing decent work, with a few highly publicized lapses. We like our national parks. We may not ride AMTRAK but we figure we must keep it. Most of these agencies and benefits are popular. Americans don’t want anyone touching Social Security.
Taking up where the last Congress left off
Decade after decade, for reasons that seemed good and appealing to the congressmen in office at the time, each newly elected Congress tended to start legislating where the outgoing bunch left off. By the 1960s, the country was ready to accept a new generation of social welfare spending (Medicare, etc.) to go with war spending and too-long-delayed civil rights reform. Relentlessly, the patchwork of federal programs inched ever leftward toward European-style social democracy.
As each new Congress took up where the old one left off, no one seemed to think that perhaps beginning more in the middle might be helpful, say somewhere around Square Fifty. A predicted problem arose: Today, Americans support the programs but are unwilling or incapable of taxing themselves to pay for ever-more-expansive and expensive benefits. Americans want to find someone else to tax. Thomas Jefferson and other founders predicted that this form of greed would take hold, sooner or later.
Sen. Russell Long (D-La.) put it this way: “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax that fellow behind the tree!” This human tendency to want others to bear part of our burden irritates those who believe that the United States is a special place, with promises to keep to future generations and to people across the globe who long for self-determination. We are less able to discharge our responsibilities to our progeny and to others, at home and elsewhere, if we do not have our finances in order. Yet, taxing someone else is now part of the national debate, most recently with Democrats wanting to tax the wealthy, currently those earning over $250,000, and Republicans countering that higher-income citizens tend to put their money to work to create jobs. The partisan arguing continues even as we inch closer to Square One Hundred and we find fewer people hiding behind the remaining trees.
Back to the beginning
Most Tea Party voters want to begin at the beginning, to review the bidding, to decide which programs to keep, which to scrap, which deserve funding because they accomplish something and which are funded because they provide jobs or please a favored constituency. Tea Partiers are realistic and know that the U.S. will not and should not return all the way to Square One. But the Tea Party will not begin where the last Congress left off. To officials who believe that they were elected to enact grand programs, that is a scary message. No wonder mainstream Republican leaders resist Tea Partiers. They have joined their Democratic colleagues as experts of earmarks.
Seemingly, the Tea Party has come from nothing. In fact, the core beliefs have been there all along. Elites may criticize these beliefs. They may dismiss them. But no one can deny that the Tea Party has become a force in American politics. Candidates with Tea Party backing keep winning. Now, the Tea Party threatens to replace the GOP. Already, the Tea Party is more popular among likely voters than the Democratic or the Republican parties, with the GOP running a weak third. How’s that for a movement with little formal structure, no national coordinating committee, no organization chart, no authority to delegate?
The Tea Party is concentrating on economic, tax, budget and spending issues. For the most part, people attracted to the Tea Party are leaving social issues and their divisiveness to others and to another time. Skyrocketing spending, jobs and the economic crisis soak up most of the energy.
This type movement is hard to fight because it is so fluid. The Tea Party exists as a virtual entity. Eighteen months ago, if the brightest political minds had tried to form a third party, they would have joined the dozens of other smart people who have failed in such attempts. Yet, this virtual party has zoomed ahead of the old parties in popularity. Would anyone have predicted that? Not the patricians of the two establishment parties.
Baffling the political establishment
Leaders of both older parties are used to special privileges – VIP suites, badges that allow access to favored areas during political conventions, jaunts to cushy resorts for meetings. Today’s party leaders have paid their dues and have risen through the ranks. They feel entitled to their perks. Suddenly, outsiders are entering and winning Republican primaries. The one bit of good news for Democrats this election season is the discomfort Republican elites are experiencing.
Note the shrieking by establishment Republicans when Tea Party-backed Christine O’Donnell upset GOP Brahmin Rep. Michael Castle to secure the Republican senate nomination in Delaware. Immediately, powerful GOP leaders denounced her and said that she could not win in November, which could cost the Republicans control of the senate. Maybe, but the Tea Party activists have a different victory in mind. They do not want to send another Square Seventy-Eight compromiser to Washington. The Tea Party intends to flush out the compromisers, regardless of party affiliation.
Whatever anyone thinks, the Tea Partiers have won already. Their victory will not be diminished if the Republicans fail to regain control of the senate. Democratic incumbents who voted for healthcare reform are now campaigning against it. Democratic candidates are running against and away from President Obama and toward the right, a little closer to Square One. Some Democrats are beginning to realize that the Tea Party next may start fielding candidates in Democratic primaries.
The Tea Party has changed the starting point. Tea Partiers may have changed the direction that the United States will take, back toward the more conservative side of the scale. Certainly, for the first time in almost eight decades, the left will have a hard time advancing.
Perhaps the Tea Party has changed more than the starting point.