The true test of tea parties' mettle

Now that the 2010 midterm elections are over, tongues have already started wagging over who the potential Republican presidential candidates may be in 2012.
By Ezra Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 18, 2010; 6:20 PM

Remember the good old days, when Washington cared about deficits? I do. President Obama signed an executive order forming a commission to consider spending cuts, tax increases and other reforms that would balance the budget. Sen. Mitch McConnell opposed that commission, but he seemed equally concerned: "Most Americans would say the real emergency here is a $13 trillion debt," he thundered.

The good old days, of course, were just a few months ago. Today, Washington has an opportunity to take an enormous stride toward a balanced budget - and both parties are running in the opposite direction as fast as possible.

The opportunity is the Bush tax cuts, which are set to expire this year. If they do expire this year - or in the next few years - the budget outlook brightens considerably. But neither party is about to let that happen. The Republicans are proposing to increase the deficit by about $4 trillion by extending all of the Bush tax cuts and the Democrats are countering with an offer to increase the deficit by a bit more than $3 trillion by extending only the tax cuts for those making less than $250,000 a year. Look at those numbers again: $4 trillion and $3 trillion. That's vastly more deficit spending than the stimulus, bank bailouts, health-care bill (which actually reduces the deficit) and everything else we've done in the past few years combined.

Enter the tea parties. Plural, of course, because there are many tea parties, and they have not decided to make the lives of policy columnists easier by collaborating on a party platform. But the one thing they do appear to agree on is deficits: They're bad.

"Runaway deficit spending as we now see in Washington, D.C., compels us to take action as the increasing national debt is a grave threat to our national sovereignty," reads the mission statement of Tea Party Patriots, the movement's largest umbrella group. A spokesman for Rand Paul, a tea party favorite who captured the Republican nomination for Senate in Kentucky, assured the Daily Beast that Paul would "vote against and filibuster any unbalanced budget proposal in the Senate."

But will the tea party candidates, when it comes down to it, be any different from the Republican Party that serves as their uncomfortable home? As of yet, there's little sign of it. The tea parties may be something new in American politics, or at least something rare. They're grass-roots, decentralized and deeply authentic. But their candidates sound, well, like any other politicians.

Take Paul. The Lexington-Herald Leader asked him whether the Bush tax cuts should be fully extended. "Absolutely," he replied. "The money is not the government's. It is ours." The problem, of course, is that we, as a democratic society, granted the government the power to tax that money in order to spend it on things we thought important, such as national defense and Social Security. If you take away the revenue but don't cut the spending, you get deficits. And the tea party hates deficits.

So how would Paul pay for the tax cuts? Paul said he "couldn't spell out a proposal to do that before the November 2 election." And even if he does spell out a proposal after the election, the one put forward by the GOP's leadership doesn't pay for itself. Will Paul vote against it - will he in fact filibuster his own party - unless it adds $4 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade?

Paul isn't alone. Christine O'Donnell, who scored the upset in Delaware, rails against the deficit but says we "absolutely" have to extend the Bush tax cuts. That's $4 trillion straight to the deficit's hips. How will she pay for it? "Waste," of course. Anyone who's been around Washington for even a day or two is familiar with that dodge.

Then there's the Mama Grizzly herself. Sarah Palin may be the patron saint of the tea parties, but when she gets on Fox News, she's just another politician. Last month, Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace asked about the tension between extending the tax cuts for the rich and balancing the budget. "Republicans keep talking about being deficit hawks," he said. "This is $678 billion you are not going to pay for." Palin refused to even grant the premise. "No, this is going to result in the largest tax increase in U.S. history. Again, it's idiotic. My palm isn't large enough to have written all my notes down on what this tax increase, what it will result in."

In 2006, William Niskanen, former chairman of the libertarian Cato Institute, published an influential paper titled "Limiting Government: The Failure of 'Starve the Beast.'?" In it, he critiqued the conservative idea that cutting taxes would "starve" the government of revenue, and thus force it to reduce spending. The reality, he said, was quite the opposite. If politicians found they could cut taxes without paying for it, they would realize they could increase spending without paying for it, too. From 1981 to 2005, tax cuts led to more, rather than less, spending. In other words, they led to deficits.

The other problem with the theory, Niskanen said, was that it had let Republicans off the hook. The idea that you could cut taxes without reducing spending had "substantially reduced the traditional Republican concern for fiscal responsibility - leading to a pattern of tax cuts, increased spending, and increased deficits."

This, finally, is the choice that faces the tea parties as they begin sending their members to Washington. Democrats and Republicans have both embraced the idea that tax cuts don't need to be paid for - and it produced the "runaway deficit spending" that ignited the tea parties. But politicians didn't make those decisions because they loved deficits. They made those decisions because fiscal responsibility is hard and unpopular.

Right now, the tea parties are riding a bad economy, attaching themselves to outsider candidates of varying ideological stripes (Paul is a libertarian and O'Donnell is a Christian conservative), and enjoying a run of easy victories. But as Obama could tell them, it's easier to be popular when campaigning than while governing. Amid the poetry of campaigning, you can have everything. Faced with the prose of governing, you have to make choices.

A New York Times/CBS poll in April asked tea partiers to prioritize between cutting taxes and reducing the deficit: Cutting taxes won, 49 to 42 percent. Lots of people, of course, think the budget can be balanced based on other people's sacrifices - and politicians aggressively encourage that belief. But at the end of the day, eliminating runaway deficits means one - actually, a few - of the following things: Tax hikes, Medicare cuts, Social Security cuts and military spending cuts. Which do the tea parties favor? Actually, let me rephrase: Which will they insist on?

That's the hard stuff. That's when we'll see whether the tea parties are really something new in American politics, or just more of the same weak brew.

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