In the event of a Republican takeover of one or both houses of Congress on November 2nd, it won’t be long before the Tea Party Movement and the G.O.P. will be involved in one or more train wrecks, some of which could be pretty dramatic. These train wrecks will arise from fundamental differences in philosophy and will occur over a period of time that could begin sooner rather than later. Upending Republican establishmentarians during primaries was relatively easy; winning general elections where competitive ideas are at issue could be a bit harder. Governing will be much harder still, particularly when you take into account the differences between Tea Party rhetoric and American political reality.
The first obstacle newly elected members of the movement will face is the institutional nature of Congress. Tea Party freshmen in both the House and Senate will be at the bottom of Congressional seniority lists and thus not immediately in line for leadership roles as committee chairpersons. Thus they will be in the position of having to sell their policy proposals to the existing leadership. That leadership may be more amenable to the ideas of the newcomers given the fact that several veteran Republican lawmakers are no longer around thanks to the Tea Party. Conversely the G.O.P. leaders may let Congress work the way it always has thereby attenuating the influence of the Tea Party. In the Senate in particular the likely Republican winners are veteran politicians who will come to the office with considerable experience. According to political observer David Herszenhorn: “Insurgent challengers may be grabbing all the headlines in midterm elections this year, but most of the Republicans who are best positioned to snap up Senate seats currently held by Democrats are veteran politicians – and most of them have already served in Congress. Based on their experience, the 2010 class of Senate Republican freshman could well prove to be relatively pragmatic and wise to the ways of legislative deal making – almost certainly more so than the Tea Party-backed firebrands like Sharron Angle in Nevada and Rand Paul in Kentucky, who have built their campaigns around ideological demands and an end to business as usual.” In all of the discussions surrounding this election, few have pointed out the difference between those candidates who come out of, or are closely aligned with the Tea Party Movement and those who have received the movement’s support solely because of their Republican affiliation. This second group will not necessarily move in lock step with the hard-core ideologues of the Tea Party seeing as they are not beholden to the movement in any meaningful way. Therein lay the seeds of intra-party conflict and controversy.
The next challenge facing newly elected members of the Tea Party Movement will be the reconciliation of their penchant for spending cuts and ending earmarks versus what can be achieved in the realm of the possible. These desires will butt up against the fact that cutting government spending during a severe economic downturn could only make things worse and many Republicans favor an ending of the G.O.P.’s moratorium on the use of earmarks. There’s a reason that the G.O.P’s leadership has been mum on the political talk show circuit when it comes to detailing the particulars of spending cuts and the reason is that they don’t have a viable plan. Even as late in the game as this morning, Haley Barbour, appearing on “Meet the Press” was unable or unwilling to fill in the blanks when asked how a Republican controlled Congress will reduce the size of government. Tom Brokaw, appearing on this same show pointed out that many Republican candidates have made rash promises on the campaign trail that can’t be kept or will be nearly impossible to keep given the current political situation. Again we see the future of conflict as already being baked into the cake, so to speak.
I read “A Pledge to America” and it is full of general statements regarding spending cuts, but for the scope of its discussion, it lays out few policy specifics. The “Pledge” is equal parts indictment, rallying cry and Act of Contrition, but what it isn’t is a blueprint for reducing government. I can’t help but wonder why the G.O.P. trotted out the “Pledge” when they have Congressman Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) “A Roadmap For America’s Future” which is a well reasoned analysis full of specific proposed cuts. Again to Herszenhorn: “while polls show that the Republicans’ message is succeeding politically, Republican candidates and party leaders are offering few specifics about how they would tackle the nation’s $13.7 trillion debt, and budget analysts said the party was glossing over the difficulty of carrying out its ideas, especially when sharp spending cuts could impede an already weak economic recovery…(both) parties share blame for the current fiscal situation, but federal budget statistics show that Republican policies over the last decade, and the cost of the two wars, added far more to the deficit than initiatives approved by the Democratic Congress since 2006…Calculations by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office and other independent fiscal experts show that the $1.1 trillion cost over the next 10 years of the Medicare prescription drug program, which the Republican-controlled Congress adopted in 2003, by itself would add more to the deficit than the combined costs of the bailout, the stimulus and the health care law.” Moreover, most Republicans are calling for the permanent extension of all Bush-era tax cuts and that would add $700 billion more to the deficit over the next 10 years.
The “Pledge” has come in for scathing criticism on the right as well as the left. Janet Hook and Naftali Bendavid of the Wall Street Journal made the following observations: “The new policy manifesto released by House Republicans Thursday is laced with ideas and rhetoric designed to appeal to the surging tea-party movement. But it left some conservatives disappointed with its omissions and complaining that the plan had limited sweep… Yet the new agenda was silent on some of the most sought-after goals on the tea-party wish list, such as a balanced budget constitutional amendment and a ban on special-interest appropriations called earmarks.” Many conservatives look to what is now happening in the United Kingdom as a model of inspiration for cut backs here. But that program involves a significant reduction in defense spending; something that would have to be included here as well as those outlays constitutes 58% of discretionary federal spending. With a large portion of federal spending being committed to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and paying off interest on Treasury Bonds, the amount of money subject to discretionary spending reduction is only one third of all outlays. There is a growing minority within the G.O.P. on Capitol Hill who are making the case that the projected debt is too big to handle through spending cuts alone. According to Saxby Chambliss (R-GA): “Everything has got to be on the table for discussion… “there are a lot of things people are going to have to be educated about, on the spending side as well as the revenue side. They’re thinking we can come in and eliminate earmarks and everybody’s going to be happy on the spending side. Gee, that just scratches the surface.” Is Senator Chambliss tacitly acknowledging that tax cuts will have to expire or even that tax increases may be needed to deal with the deficit? The “Pledge” is notoriously silent on the subject of earmarks and seeing as they are a major source of spending, this is sure to give rise to a rift within the new Republican caucus on Capitol Hill. It doesn’t take a soothsayer or a professional handicapper to see that the G.O.P. and the Tea Party Movement are on a collision course with regard to spending and the practical ability to reign in that spending given the current economic situation and the present composition of federal government outlays. Thus there is little reason to believe that the Republican rhetoric of the campaign trail will carryover to policies
that actually achieve what that rhetoric has promised. Therein lies the root of yet another G.O.P. – Tea Party collision.
Newly elected Tea Party Movement lawmakers may find themselves running into some strong headwinds in the form of those special interests that have invested heavily in this election on behalf of conservative causes. While it is now likely that in the final analysis Democrats may end up spending more money than their opposition, there is an unprecedented amount of money flowing to the Republican side from outside sources as a result of the Citizens United ruling. According to OpenSecrets.org the 2010 midterms have seen a whooping 186.7 million dollars flowing into Republican coffers vice 88.6 million for the Democrats. Likewise an article on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and business donations shows the tide running against the Democrats among these groups at a rate of almost two to one. Ostensibly one would say what difference does it make where all this money is coming from if the Democrats are actually spending more? But within the confines of this argument, what matters is that this tidal wave of money spent by outside interests is being spent for a reason, to influence the election’s outcome and thereafter to buy influence with the winners. Washington lobbyists are already courting the potential new Congressional chairmen and in the process could effectively be
outmaneuvering the Tea Party activists in the game of power and influence. Thus the many questions that beg to be asked: Won’t all of this money muscle out the grassroots crowd and how will the Tea Party activists compete for attention with the lobbyists who are already prowling the halls of Congress and the bars and restaurants of downtown Washington? Is the movement about to get mugged on K Street? Are the rank and file Tea Party patriots in the process of “taking their country back” just to have it taken away in turn by the wealthy interests who have spent all of this money to influence the outcome of the 2010 elections? Surely this money was not spent because it was burning a hole in someone’s pocket. Does anyone believe that these special interests were in the mood to do the activists a favor on November 2nd? Will the rank and file Tea Partier unwittingly deliver “his country” as a gift to a new class of plutocrats that will have no use for him except for his vote during the next election cycle and his attendance at rallies? Don’t look now but we may be about to witness the greatest political hustle since the evangelicals came out in force for George W. Bush only to get nothing of substance in the bargain.
Finally, the Tea Party Movement will continue to run up against the fact that many of its essential beliefs are divorced from reality and therein lay the seeds of train wrecks to come. First and foremost is one of its core ideas, that Americans are over taxed. The fact is that taxes are as low as they have been in sixty years; lower than they were when Ronald Reagan was President. As Senator Chambliss implied above, increased taxes may be inevitable if people are serious about reducing the deficit. The Tea Party waxes nostalgic for the Reagan era, yet unemployment was higher when the “Gipper” went into his first midterm election than it is now and his approval rating was roughly the same as Obama’s. The movement preaches fiscal restraint while refusing to consider reductions in defense spending where wasteful spending is well documented and widespread. This will lead to calls for a reduction in social programs during the worst economic downturn since the 1930s and that will only create resistance on the left and reluctance on the part of practical Republican officeholders on the right. The Tea Partiers clamor, “keep your hands off my Medicare” but underplay how to reign in the program’s cost increases. They rail against TARP, blaming Obama for its inception all the while ignoring the fact that many of the very Republicans running for re-election are the ones who originally put the bailout in place. How will they address the fact that TARP’s costs will be less than originally anticipated? Even conservative observer Ross Douthat admits that for all its shortcomings TARP was a necessary evil at the time of its inception. On the issue of repealing health care reform there is now no clear consensus to do so, according to the latest CBS poll, yet repeal is a major Tea Party goal.
The continued Tea Party fixation with Obama as a Socialist, Fascist or both at the same time reveals a lack of understanding of what actually comprises these two somewhat similar yet fundamentally different schools of political thought. If it’s not that, then what else could it be other than a deliberate attempt to misinform the public for partisan ends. It goes without saying that this is something that can only contribute to further gridlock. This fact stands in direct contrast to what the public wants. The latest polling by both Bloomberg and the New York Times / CBS News reveals an electorate that wants compromise not confrontation. Yet with the arrival of Tea Party backed lawmakers the stage is now set for a political environment more favorable to confrontation than to compromise. Attempts to fix the blame on President Obama for the current economic situation are likely to fail as well as “nearly 60 percent of Americans were optimistic about Mr. Obama’s next two years in office and nearly 70 percent said the economic slump is temporary. Half said the economy was where they expected it would be at this point, and less than 10 percent blamed the current administration for the state of the economy, leaving the onus on former President George W. Bush and Wall Street.” In the final analysis, the 2010 election is shaping up to be something of an anomaly. On the one hand you have widespread voter dissatisfaction with the status quo while at the same time the party likely to gain seats has a favorability rating below the party that will be turned out of office. Thus for the Republicans this victory will be a political windfall rather than an endorsement of the party and its platform. The G.O.P. will find itself in an inopportune marriage of convenience with the Tea Party Movement which in the long haul may turn out to the G.O.P.’s detriment as the public grows weary of the gridlock and political train wrecks that are sure to come. Rather than being on the cusp of a Republican revival or a “return to our core values” we are more likely on the verge of an environment of political chaos which is just what we don’t need at this point in time and that chaos may well come back to haunt the Republican Party and hobble its chances in the 2012 election and beyond. Ladies and Gentlemen, fasten your seat belts.
Steven J. Gulitti