Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Tea Party 101

This is my "Understanding the Tea Party Movement" column over at, but with some extra information thrown into the middle.


You cannot understand American politics today without understanding the Tea Party movement. Especially after Tuesday's Republican primaries, everyone from The President and the House Speaker down to the voting citizen should get a handle on it. Get it wrong, and you get everything wrong. It is a truly American movement. It is popular in origin, protective of property, rooted in the Founding, and morally serious.

The movement began as a protest against exponentially-more-than-usual runaway government spending. The Washington Post's David Montgomery traces it back to Mary Rakovich, an unemployed middle-aged automotive engineer, standing outside a Fort Myers stadium in Florida on February 10, 2009, protesting the president's $787 billion stimulus bill that he was promoting at a "town hall meeting." It was just Mary and her husband, a handful of co-belligerents, and a cooler full of water. The sun was cruel, but providence was smiling. Fox News called to invite her to be interviewed on Neil Cavuto. Similar protests began budding in other cities.

About a week later, CNBC's Rick Santelli accidentally provided the movement with a name in a rant from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade. This got an enthusiastic response from the traders around him.

"I have an idea. The new administration's big on computers and technology. How about this, president and new administration? Why don't you put up a website to have people vote on the Internet as a referendum to see if we really want to subsidize the losers' mortgages or would we like to, at least, buy cars and buy houses in foreclosure and give them to people that might have the chance to actually prosper down the road, and reward people than could carry the water instead of drink the water."

At the end of this clip, notice that Santelli refers to our nation's founders. "If you read our Founding Fathers, people like Benjamin Franklin and Jefferson, what we're doing in this country now is making them roll over in their graves." He claims that what the government is doing in its attempt to solve the current economic crisis is not only economically foolish, but also politically a betrayal of our founding principles.

In the middle of all this, Santelli mentions offhandedly, "We're thinking of having a Chicago tea party in July." From all that he says, it is clear that he has in mind a protest against not only the high levels of government spending by the new Obama administration, but also the counterproductivity, political infidelity, and moral injustice of it.

Michael Barone emphasizes the moral aspect of Santelli's founding document of rant in "The Transformative Power of Rick Santelli's Rant" (June 9, 2010).

A recent statement by Phillip Dennis, a Texas Tea Party leader and advisor to the National Tea Party Coalition ("Tea Party Leader: What We Want," CNN, April 16, 2010), gives some insight into what has developed in the following year.

"The federal government is addicted to spending, and the consequences are now staring us in the face." He cites two politically neutral and authoritative sources to underscore the dimensions of the crisis that has provoked the national Tea Party uprising. In July 2009, Congressional Budget Office director Doug Elmendorf described our current budgetary course as "unsustainable." On his Director's Blog, he wrote:

Under current law, the federal budget is on an unsustainable path, because federal debt will continue to grow much faster than the economy over the long run. Although great uncertainty surrounds long-term fiscal projections, rising costs for health care and the aging of the population will cause federal spending to increase rapidly under any plausible scenario for current law. Unless revenues increase just as rapidly, the rise in spending will produce growing budget deficits. Large budget deficits would reduce national saving, leading to more borrowing from abroad and less domestic investment, which in turn would depress economic growth in the United States. Over time, accumulating debt would cause substantial harm to the economy.
 In April 2010, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke was also using the word "unsustainable."

To avoid large and unsustainable budget deficits, the nation will ultimately have to choose among higher taxes, modifications to entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, less spending on everything else from education to defense, or some combination of the above.

He sees the protest as a response to “decades of irresponsible government fiscal behavior.” He does not say how many decades back he is thinking, but he echoes Ronald Reagan’s concerns when he says, “We have gone from a nation of self-sufficient producers to a nation divided between overburdened taxpaying producers and some nonproducers who exist on welfare from cradle to grave.”

But again, Dennis's focus is not simply economic. He makes reference to the Founding Fathers and constitutional principles. “America has moved away from the vision of our Founding Fathers who advocated for a nuanced balance between federal and state power. As America has drifted from constitutional values, federal power has grown.” He speaks not only as a fiscal conservative, but more importantly as a constitutional conservative.

When he moves from complaints to concrete proposals for renewal, he strikes a revolutionary (counter-revolutionary?) stance.

Federal spending must immediately be drastically slashed across the board: Abolish the useless departments of Education and Agriculture, among others; get rid of the EPA; and repeal the stimulus bill and other pork spending. These are millstones around the neck of the American taxpayer and our economy.

Send all responsibilities of these agencies back to the states where they can be better and more efficiently managed. Foreign aid and Pentagon spending must be equally constrained and reduced.

Second, the number of government jobs must be substantially cut, and those employees must return to the private sector. Overpaid bureaucrats with fat benefits and pensions not found in the real world are simply not needed. Or wanted.

Third, fraud and welfare waste must be eliminated. Welfare and unemployment benefits must be drastically cut.

Welfare, health and education services for illegal immigrants must be eliminated.

The Center for Immigration Studies recently reported that 33 percent of immigrant households use some kind of "welfare." Again, who pays? The American taxpayer!

Government must get completely out of the private sector. Market freedoms must prevail for America to be successful. Government control over our financial and insurance industries, major manufacturing, health care and energy is a sure recipe for disaster.

It would be interesting to know how much agreement each of these ideas registers among the 27% of the country that supports the Tea Party movement, according to an May Washington Post/ABC poll.

Anyone like Paul Krugman who dismisses Tea Party activists as "crazy" and an "AstroTurf" movement, i.e., a fake grass roots movement ("Tea Parties Forever," New York Times, April 12, 2009) is arguing away an incoming electoral missile and will likely soon be doing the same with his demise in the political hereafter.

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