The Tea Party: "The yardstick, and the clock"

The populist movement is more a critique of the GOP than a wing of it.


So far, the tea party is not a wing of the GOP but a critique of it. This was demonstrated in spectacular fashion when GOP operatives dismissed tea party-backed Christine O'Donnell in Delaware. The Republican establishment is "the reason we even have the Tea Party movement," shot back columnist and tea party enthusiast Andrea Tantaros in the New York Daily News. It was the Bush administration that "ran up deficits" and gave us "open borders" and "Medicare Part D and busted budgets."


I see two central reasons for the tea party's rise. The first is the yardstick, and the second is the clock. First, the yardstick. Imagine that over at the 36-inch end you've got pure liberal thinking—more and larger government programs, a bigger government that costs more in the many ways that cost can be calculated. Over at the other end you've got conservative thinking—a government that is growing smaller and less demanding and is less expensive. You assume that when the two major parties are negotiating bills in Washington, they sort of lay down the yardstick and begin negotiations at the 18-inch line. Each party pulls in the direction it wants, and the dominant party moves the government a few inches in their direction.

But if you look at the past half century or so you have to think: How come even when Republicans are in charge, even when they're dominant, government has always gotten larger and more expensive? It's always grown! It's as if something inexorable in our political reality—with those who think in liberal terms dominating the establishment, the media, the academy—has always tilted the starting point in negotiations away from 18 inches, and always toward liberalism, toward the 36-inch point.

Democrats on the Hill or in the White House try to pull it up to 30, Republicans try to pull it back to 25. A deal is struck at 28. Washington Republicans call it victory: "Hey, it coulda been 29!" But regular conservative-minded or Republican voters see yet another loss. They could live with 18. They'd like eight. Instead it's 28.

For conservatives on the ground, it has often felt as if Democrats (and moderate Republicans) were always saying, "We should spend a trillion dollars," and the Republican Party would respond, "No, too costly. How about $700 billion?" Conservatives on the ground are thinking, "How about nothing? How about we don't spend more money but finally start cutting."


The second thing is the clock. Here is a great virtue of the tea party: They know what time it is. It's getting late. If we don't get the size and cost of government in line now, we won't be able to. We're teetering on the brink of some vast, dark new world—states and cities on the brink of bankruptcy, the federal government too. The issue isn't "big spending" anymore. It's ruinous spending that they fear will end America as we know it, as they promised it to their children.

So there's a sense that dramatic action is needed, and a sense of profound urgency. Add drama to urgency and you get the victory of a tea party-backed candidate.

Comment: I appreciate Noonan's analysis. The Republican party has failed to reign in government. When in power, they act like Democrats

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