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The Tea Party’s Challenge

There is a lot of chatter these days about the effect of the Tea Party movement on American politics. In the short term, the answer is blindingly obvious: It’s a huge boost for Republicans. The energy and enthusiasm the Tea Party movement is generating will work for GOP candidates and against Democratic candidates in almost every race in the country. Democrats are on course to be administered an epic defeat, one that will exceed, perhaps by a sizeable margin, even the one they experienced in 1994.

What the longer-term effects of the Tea Party will be on the GOP and the country is harder to know. The Tea Party is, at this stage in its development, much more of a protest movement than a governing philosophy. There is plenty of talk about “constitutional conservatism” — an encouraging impulse that seeks to ground political efforts in the American tradition — but what that means in practice isn’t always clear. To the extent that we can discern what the fuel is behind the Tea Party movement, it has to do with bringing the deficit and debt under control and checking the size, role, and reach of the federal government.

That is, I think, all for the better. But the Tea Party’s passions need to be channeled in constructive ways, beyond simply electoral politics. It eventually needs to become a force in how we govern the nation. And in this respect, work still remains to be done.

Candidates will tell you that at town-hall meetings Tea Party activists aim their fire against the Department of Education, earmarks, bailouts, and congressional salaries. That’s fine as far as it goes; President Obama increased nondefense discretionary spending by 10 percent for the last half of fiscal year 2009 and another 12 percent for fiscal year 2010. That certainly can be trimmed back. But we all know that the solution to our fiscal crisis can only be found in reforming and cutting entitlements. And here the picture begins to blur a bit.

Take as an example Christine O’Donnell, who is now the toast of many Tea Party supporters and conservatives from coast to coast. Much of her support is based on understandable unhappiness with the man she defeated, Mike Castle. But what do we really know about O’Donnell’s governing philosophy? Well, one thing we do know is that she ran an ad late in the campaign against Castle claiming this: “Keeping ObamaCare and cuts in Medicare: Castle for it, O’Donnell against it.”

The first part of that equation is fine; it’s the second part — the one about cuts in Medicare — that troubles me.

Today an estimated 47.4 million people are enrolled in Medicare, up by 38 percent from 1990. And by 2030, the number is projected to be 80.4 million. And as Representative Paul Ryan points out in “A Roadmap for America ’s Future,” Medicare has an unfunded liability — the excess of projected spending in its programs over the amount of revenue currently estimated to be available for them — of $38 trillion over the next 75 years. In just the next 5 years, by 2014, Medicare’s unfunded liability is projected to grow to $52 trillion. And when Social Security and Medicare are taken together, the total unfunded liability in the next five years will grow to $57 trillion.

Yet when asked in a poll question, “Overall, do you think the benefits from government programs such as Social Security and Medicare are worth the costs of those programs for taxpayers, or are they not worth the costs?” 62 percent of Tea Party respondents answered “worth it” while only 33 percent answered “not worth it.” This won’t do.

Authentic political leadership means confronting the facts as they are, explaining to people the magnitude of the fiscal problems we face, and showing the wisdom and skill to build a political coalition that will begin the hard work of going after weak claims and not just weak clients, to use David Stockman’s formulation.

It won’t be easy. Cutting the deficit and the debt is undemanding and effortless in the abstract; it gets a good deal harder when you begin to talk about raising the retirement age, progressive indexing (meaning linking the initial Social Security benefits of high- and middle-income earners to prices rather than to wages, as is currently the case), and gradually and thoughtfully transitioning toward a means-tested system of benefits in place of the current Social Security and Medicare systems.

Yet this is what the times demand of our political class — and, frankly, it is what the times demand of the citizenry itself. The American people cannot will the end without willing the means to the end. The Tea Party can play a useful and constructive role in all this, I think; but that means it has to be serious about governing, not just spouting vague slogans embracing easy cuts, “constitutional conservatism,” and reciting the failures and evils of “big government.”

In that sense, my concern isn’t that the Tea Party is too conservative; it is that it’s not conservative enough.



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