Republicans in Congress have reached a crossroads – they must decide if they are a governing party or one so beholden to its ideological fringe that it is incapable of doing the basic work of a legislative body. How the party answers that question will determine not only the direction of policy on key issues and Republican prospects for reelection next year, but who will be president in 2013.
It is obvious that the Tea Party phenomenon has rocked Republican politics; pushing an already conservative party much further to the right and bringing into it a vast number of new members who are highly energized and deeply ideological, but very inexperienced at politics and not very knowledgeable about how Congress operates on a day-to-day basis. This has proven deeply frustrating to many veteran Republican legislators.
I have long sought a good explanation for where the Tea Party came from and the source of its intensity. Toward this end, I have been reading newly-elected Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-KY) book, “The Tea Party Goes to Washington.” He is, of course, a Tea Party favourite; son of another Tea Party favourite, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX); and someone who got elected by opposing the GOP establishment in Kentucky, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
According to Sen. Paul, much of what drives the Tea Party is sort of a delayed reaction to the disappointing presidency of George W. Bush. In a revealing passage from his book, Paul says:
“Imagine this – what if there had never been a President George W. Bush, and when Bill Clinton left office he was immediately replaced with Barack Obama. Now imagine Obama had governed from 2000 to 2008 exactly as Bush did – doubling the size of government, doubling the debt, expanding federal entitlements and education, starting the Iraq war – the whole works. To make matters worse, imagine that for a portion of that time, the Democrats actually controlled all three branches of government. Would Republicans have given Obama and his party a free pass in carrying out the exact same agenda as Bush? It’s hard to imagine this being the case, given the grief Bill Clinton got from Republicans.”
This argument hits close to home for me because after 30 years of working in Republican politics, including for Ronald Reagan and Rand’s father, I became deeply alienated from the party for the very reasons Rand explains. The final straw for me was the way Republicans rammed the Medicare Part D program into law in 2003. This took place at the very moment when the Medicare program was starting to seriously hemorrhage money. It was grossly irresponsible to add massively to its deficit largely for the purpose of buying re-election for Bush and his party in 2004.
This year, Medicare Part D will add about $55 billion to the deficit – far more than can be saved with all the budget cuts Republicans can possibly hope to achieve in fiscal 2011. Furthermore, it annoys me to see so many of those who voted for Medicare Part D, such as House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), treated as if they are paragons of fiscal responsibility. In fact, their concern for excessive spending is highly selective, directed almost entirely at programs supported by Democrats primarily to undercut their political support, not because they care so much about deficits.
My disgust with the GOP became so intense after the Medicare Part D debacle, I wrote a book on the subject. I thought if conservatives broke with Bush at that time and adopted a more Tea Party-like approach to getting our fiscal house in order that it might stave off the political disasters I saw looming in 2006 and 2008.
Republicans preferred to kill the messenger, leading to my permanent estrangement from both the party and the conservative movement. But perhaps my effort wasn’t entirely for naught. Apparently, one of the few readers of my book was Rand Paul, who quotes me saying this:
“The point is that George W. Bush has never demonstrated any interest in shrinking the size of government. And on many occasions, he has increased government significantly. Yet if there is anything that defines conservatism in America, it is hostility to government expansion. The idea of big government conservatism, a term often used to describe Bush’s philosophy, is a contradiction in terms.”
So why is it that I have been disdainful of the Tea Party from its first manifestation in early 2009? The main reason is that so many of its members simply don’t know what they are talking about; they seem to think that strong opinions are a substitute for facts, research and analysis. Consequently, many Tea Party members hold views on various topics that are, frankly, nuts, and these views have been embraced by some Republican voters as well.
For example, a March 15, 201, poll by Public Policy Polling found that 25 per cent of Republicans expect that a group called ACORN is going to steal the election for Obama next year and 31 per cent aren’t sure; only 43 per cent of Republicans believe this is false. In point of fact, ACORN no longer even exists, and it’s doubtful that it could have stolen a local election for dog catcher even if it wanted to.
An August 27, 2010, poll by Princeton Survey Research Associates International found that 52 per cent of Republicans believe that Obama sympathizes with Islamic fundamentalists and favours imposing Islamic law around the world; only 7 per cent thought this was definitely untrue.
A March 24, 2010, Harris poll found that 67 per cent of Republicans believe that Obama is a socialist, 61 per cent think he wants to take away the right to own guns, 57 per cent believe he is a Muslim, 45 per cent say he was not born in the U.S. and has no right to be president, and 41 per cent think he is just looking for an excuse to seize dictatorial power.
As a consequence, even solid conservatives like Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) are considered dangerous liberals. And slightly less conservative Republicans such as former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman are treated as dangerous radicals. In a March 14 New York Times report, Utah Tea Party leader Jacqueline Smith said of Huntsman, “On a good day, he’s a socialist. On a bad day, he’s a communist.”
This sort of rhetoric serves no useful purpose and is at best distracting. It also elevates minor differences on policy or strategy among Republicans into deep disagreements over principle. This has made it impossible for Congress to finish work on the 2011 budget, which should have been done last summer. Hard line Tea Party members keep insisting on impossibly large budget cuts despite the fact that the vast bulk of the budget is effectively off limits.
Not surprisingly, a March 16 Pew poll found that Republicans are losing ground rapidly. Backing for their approach to the budget has fallen even with Republicans and Tea Party members. Support among the former has fallen from 69 per cent last November to 52 per cent now; among the latter it has fallen from 76 per cent to 52 per cent. Support among independents is down from 37 per cent to 17 per cent.
For these reasons, I think Republicans are blowing it. They are rapidly using up their limited political capital for getting control of the budget on trivial spending cuts, such as defunding National Public Radio, that will have no long-term impact. Furthermore, we know from experience that the public’s support for budget cuts quickly ran out in 1981, leading inevitably to tax increases. And according to a February16 Harris poll, there is less support for spending cuts today than there was back then.
Although Republicans today are confident that they will retake the Senate and the White House next year, I think their current strategy of pandering to Tea Party extremists is undermining these hopes. Polls show Democrats up for reelection next year, such as Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, to be rapidly improving their chances. And Republicans should remember that one reason they controlled the White House during most of the postwar era is that the American people don’t really trust either party to control the entire government. Moreover, the lousy job Republicans did when they controlled Congress and the White House from 2001 to 2006 is still a recent memory.
It’s possible that the Tea Party will turn out to be a force for good, but increasingly it looks like populist movements of the past that quickly burned out without having a lasting impact on policy. The more quickly the movement matures, learns patience, and becomes sophisticated about the nature of politics, the better its chances of having achieving its goals.
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