Earlier this week, Ross Douthat, back from a February fast from blogging, shared what he thought were some of the more positive characteristics of the Tea Party:
The most pungent, attention-grabbing liberal critique of the Tea Parties was that they were either racist reactionaries fomenting violent insurrection, or else the hapless dupes of plutocratic puppetmasters. But the more plausible liberal critique was that the movement’s supporters weren’t actually serious about the issues they claimed to care about the most. Sure, liberals allowed, Tea Partiers said that they cared about runaway government spending, but polls showed that most of them actually felt more strongly about tax cuts than real fiscal discipline, and believed that the deficit could be pared back without touching Medicare or Social Security or defense. Likewise, Tea Partiers claimed to care about individual liberty, but polls showed that their opinions weren’t any closer to real civil libertarianism than those of the average Bush-era Republican. Citing this data, more than a few liberals suggested that the dirty secret of the Tea Partiers was that they were just Bush-era Republicans, rebranded and equipped with newfound populist zeal, but otherwise identical to the right-wing constituency that had accepted Bush’s deficit spending and expansions of the national security state without a peep. (This Jonathan Chait post from a week ago gives the flavor of this argument.) Which meant, presumably, that the movement’s promises of a more fiscally-responsible and libertarian G.O.P. were so much sound and fury, and what we should really expect from Tea Party Republicanism was more of the same: A notional commitment to limited government and individual liberty, joined to a practical politics of deficit-financed tax cuts, defense sector bloat, and Medicare demagoguery.
But here we are, a couple months into the new G.O.P. era, and the party’s Congressional leadership has formally committed itself to providing a blueprint for entitlement reform, the immense political risks notwithstanding. At the same time, while Ron Paul-style libertarianism is hardly ascendant in the Republican Party, it’s more in evidence than at any point in the Bush era: You’ve had surprising Republican votes to delay reauthorizing the PATRIOT Act, a Republican backbencher revolt that killed the F-35 engine and — most importantly, perhaps, for right-wing libertarianism’s long-term prospects — Rand Paul’s emergence as the Republican version of Russ Feingold, making the case for civil liberties in an often-inhospitable environment.
Mike at the Big Stick agrees with Douthat’s assessment and adds this:
The Tea Party is a conservative movement and thus supporting conservative candidates and challenging moderate Republicans. Essentially they are pulling most of the GOP rightward on fiscal policy (which is what so many of us have wanted for nearly two decades). The only question mark is whether or not they can remain enough of a solid voting block to keep the GOP there until something real is accomplished. The worst thing they could do is to lose the fear factor. To that end I would love to see them support a couple fiscally conservative Democrats in 2012 against fiscally moderate Republicans. A move like that would help them maintain their clout and keep Republican incumbents on their toes.
Of course, it’s not a surprise that I don’t share Ross or Mike’s enthusiasm for the Tea Party. I don’ t think they’re a bunch of racist reactionaries, but I don’t think they are a bunch freewheeling, pot-smoking Gary Johnson lovers either.
I also think it’s too early to be giving the Tea Party plaudits for their budget acumen. Yes, there are plans to deal with entitlements, but we haven’t heard of them yet, and most of the cuts they have made have are on the smallest part of the federal budget, discretionary spending. This is hardly courageous and it tends to affect only constituencies that don’t usually support the GOP, the young and the poor. If we are going to tackle something like the deficit and live within our means, we are going to have to “make everybody hurt.” Here, columnist David Brooks shows what the GOP has done in DC:
In Washington, the Republicans who designed the cuts for this fiscal year seemed to have done no serious policy evaluation. They excused the elderly and directed cuts at anything else they could easily reach. Under their budget, financing for early-childhood programs would fall off a cliff. Tens of thousands of kids, maybe hundreds of thousands, would have their slots eliminated midyear.
In short, the GOP went after the low hanging fruit. Hardly a way to get to fiscal responsibility.
The GOP talks a good game about tackling the deficit. But in the end, they aren’t any more willing to make the hard choices on federal spending than the Democrats.
And I haven’t even talked about the Tea Party, party diversity and social conservatism.