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A Lament for the Tea Party

It was 2013 and I was sitting in my office when one of my co-workers shuffled in. He had a headache, he said, the result of a campaign he was running for a position in local Republican politics that had unexpectedly turned rocky. The problem was the voters: they had tagged him as an establishment man and no matter how many times he touted his conservative bona fides, he couldn’t seem to dispel their skepticism. “Only one thing matters now,” he said, “immigration. They’re just livid about that.”

Looking back, that conversation marked, for me anyway, the moment that the Tea Party began to change, from a loosely woven coalition of activists worried about big government to the right-wing nationalist force that would eventually elect Donald Trump. (The brightest indicator of all would come a year later, when Dave Brat knocked off House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a Republican primary by running a campaign obsessed with immigration.) The causes of the Tea Party’s mutation were many: anger with Washington intransigence, the imprint of charlatans like Sarah Palin, the sheer tedium of subjects like budget supercommittees, an ethos of “libertarian populism” that perhaps inevitably saw its latter element consume its former. Yet every time you were ready to mourn the original Tea Party, there it was gasping and lurching off the gurney, thanks in large part to the GOP’s enduring Class of 2010. As recently as March of last year, Freedom Caucus members managed to sink the initial version of the American Health Care Act, Congress’s “fix” for Obamacare, on the good old-fashioned grounds that it was too accommodationist and too crony capitalist.

Well, no more. Matt Kibbe is absolutely correct [1] that the Tea Party is dead, and the mortician will note that its passing occurred around 5:30 a.m. last Friday morning, when Congress passed its two-year budget deal. That agreement vaporizes the Tea Party’s lone legislative accomplishment, the spending caps that were imposed in 2011; they were raised twice before, but never under a Republican president. It allows for $195 billion in new military spending and $131 billion in new domestic spending over the next two years. Its non-defense discretionary spending significantly surpasses [2] even the amount proposed in 2016 by Barack Obama, who probably thought he was being quixotic. It gives the defense establishment more money than even the Pentagon wanted, and maintains funding for Planned Parenthood. It is a shameful document that shows once and for all what a sham was all that congressional shadowboxing during the Tea Party’s years of rage.

The GOP is thus back to where it was during the Bush administration, which it remembers as a period of policy success and which no one else does. And then out came the various Republican mediocrities to defend their new (same as the old) normal, after Senator Rand Paul had the audacity to stall the budget Friday morning while he railed against his colleagues’ hypocrisy. The self-anointed “world’s greatest deliberative body” has reached its farcical zenith in Senator Thom Tillis who thinks making points is beneath the integrity of his office: “Points are forgotten,” he huffed at Paul [3]. “There’s not a lot of great history books about the great points of the American Senate.” Senator John Cornyn, meanwhile, chided Paul for “wasting everybody’s time.” Fathom for a moment, if you can, the indignity of lawmakers having to stay up late a few hours while they’re madly spending their grandchildren into the ground. The Tea Party always prioritized good policy over legislative comity; that, too, was jettisoned during last week’s disgrace.

It isn’t just lassez-faire economics and libertarian pamphlets that the budget brushed aside, but the very idea, inherent to conservatism, that there are limits to what politics can do. Among the most elementary of these constraints is that governments can only spend so much, lest they engender a revolt among their overtaxed subjects. Yet blinkered by the mirage of free money, today’s Congress imposes no such discipline on itself. A sane budgeting process would have allotted more funds for opioid treatment and disaster relief, and made up the difference (plus some) by reforming entitlements, eliminating duplicative programs, sweeping out waste, and beating back our oozing blob of a defense apparatus. Instead, everything has been fattened: drug enforcement and hurricane cleanup, along with the military, domestic programs, all while taxes get slashed. Everyone gets everything, priorities go unset, tough choices aren’t made. Just as Congress doesn’t declare war anymore, so, too, has it gone derelict in its duty to wisely exercise the power of its purse.

America’s national debt now exceeds the entirety [4] of her GDP, and trillion-dollar deficits are on their way back. It should say something that even Paul Krugman, the left-wing Rottweiler who battled deficit hawks during the Obama years, is calling on Congress to rein itself in [5]. “The state of the economy in 2012 was exactly the kind of situation in which running budget deficits is actually a good thing,” Krugman writes, since government needs to bullwhip demand during times of recession. But “there is no comparable case for deficits now,” he adds, “with the economy near full employment and the Fed raising interest rates to head off potential inflation.” I take a rather dim view of Krugman and his patron saint John Maynard Keynes, but there’s a certain logic at work there: you spend during busts, pay down during booms, and remain fiscally afloat. Only an inebriated deadbeat would expand the government’s budget during bad times and good, but that’s Congress for you.

The reality, of course, is that we cannot top off every pot: the money we spend now is borrowed from our children, and though we need not entirely eliminate the national debt, much of its red ink will have to be mopped up. We did just that following the Civil War and Second World War, but that was because the politicians of those times, including the Republican administrations of Grant and Eisenhower, weren’t afraid of rejiggering fiscal policy to achieve surpluses, which were then used to pay down debt. By contrast, today’s Lilliputian GOP seems too timorous (or too delusional) to so much as turn away the General Dynamics lobbyists lurking outside their offices. P.J. O’Rourke’s characterization of Congress as a “parliament of whores” now seems unfair to brothels, which must at least pay their bills in order to stay open. We are conducting an economic lab experiment on the young for which there is no precedent, and you don’t have to be a cans-squirreling survivalist to worry that it isn’t going to end well.

So RIP the Tea Party. It had lost causes, compelling ideas, and—yes—unseemly street theater and sometimes daft outbursts. That enabled its opponents to tag it as a crazed ideological front, but was it really? Which is more inflexibly ideological: to look upon the failed “compassionate conservatism” and wars of choice during the Bush years and decide it’s time for a corrective, or to keep doing the same thing a decade later? During times of elite insulation and recklessness, sometimes a populist movement is just the medicine, and the Tea Party at least for a few years was one bracing dose of castor oil. Alas, it will probably be remembered as little more than an interregnum period of parliamentary chaos between Bush and Trump. Still, as Congress indulges its diabetic appetite once again, it’s worth remembering that the guy standing on the National Mall wearing a tri-cornered hat and waving a Gadsden flag is still in possession of far more sense than is your average Republican senator.

Matt Purple is the managing editor of The American Conservative.

64 Comments (Open | Close)

64 Comments To "A Lament for the Tea Party"

#1 Comment By kevin on the left On February 15, 2018 @ 3:21 pm

“There’s plenty. Read George Borjas for starters. ”

George Borjas writes about wages, not about assimilation.

“It’s the Little Italy/Tokyo/Kabul/whatever effect. ”

The failure of Italian and Japanese immigrants to assimilate to American life is indeed legendary!

#2 Comment By Whine Merchant On February 15, 2018 @ 4:18 pm

Kevin on the left posts: “The failure of Italian and Japanese immigrants to assimilate to American life is indeed legendary!”

No, these communities DO integrate in all the meaningful ways. Just because we see a cluster of first generation immigrants capitalising on their heritage for a variety of understandable reasons, including providing you and me with a crude form of dining and shopping entertainment, does not mean that the ghettos remain. With each generation they rapidly move-on until only the tourist aspects of the clusters remain. The descendants not only disperse into all levels of our economy and geography, but also intermarry and integrate [not assimilate] into the ‘American Culture’. This evolving culture contributes a robustness by constantly adopting the best from each cohort and making life better. Of course, if one denies the immigrants a fair opportunity to legitimise their status, that will keep them in ghettos and delay their forming allegiance to the USA.

Thank you –

#3 Comment By The Scientist 880 On February 15, 2018 @ 4:19 pm

Lesley,

I live in Boston and used to work at Harvard. George Borjas is an outlier. He is basically pn his own making the statements that he is making. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he is wrong but his ideas are FAR from being accepted.

#4 Comment By JonF On February 15, 2018 @ 4:37 pm

Re: Could we have another Greece in the making here

There are a legion of differences between the US and Greece. The two biggies are A) The US is not stuck in a currency union that prevents it from controlling its own currency and hence its economic destiny and B) The United States is armed to the teeth wuith nuclear weapons giving the entire world good reason not to push the US to the brink.

#5 Comment By One Guy On February 15, 2018 @ 5:57 pm

“We were given a “choice” of two candidates…”

Nonsense. Have you never heard of a Primary Election? There was more choice in the GOP primaries than I can remember in my lifetime. If you didn’t vote in the primaries, you deserve what you got.

I voted for Kasich, myself, and don’t complain about it.

#6 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 15, 2018 @ 7:16 pm

“Lesley,

There’s no evidence immigrants have trouble integrating into American society.”

Excuse me, I have no idea where you live, but history is replete with the issues regarding assimilation.

I guess it depends what one means when they say assimilation. But in Ca, I am more than irritated with people unable to speak the English language and expecting me to learn spanish, hindi, or urto.
assimilation means you adjust to the society – your ways become their ways.

The only people who have actually totally immersed themselves when they could into such an ethos — are considered the most unintelligent and disruptive. Forever having to take second place to every new comer who doesn’t offend the sensibilities of the dominant society on sight.

You might want to ask them about assimilation.

#7 Comment By Still TP On February 15, 2018 @ 8:38 pm

@David Nash — ‘Late to the party, but… The Tea party was never about money. Look at the timeline. “

BS. And yes, by all means look at the timeline.

I’m a Tea Party voter. It was all about money. Money and basic justice and fairness. What riled me were the bailouts, the bankers and politicians basically agreeing to let each other off the hook. About giving OUR money to THEM, whether that meant bailing out the banks or cavalierly forgiving deadbeats who should never have been given home loans.

I not only had no problem with Obama, I VOTED FOR THE GUY IN 2008, having previously voted for Bush II in 2000 and 2004. (Changed my mind in 2012 after Obama’s expansion of NSA warrantless surveillance and new Middle East wars). I still think he was basically a gentleman, unlike Hillary or Trump.

Go back to news stories written at the time and you’ll see that this is pretty typical of the Tea Partiers of 2008-2010. When the big national organizations moved in they lost us, because they betrayed basic Tea Party principles as we understood them: fiscal prudence and rectitude, non-intervention, constitutional government, and justice for the banksters and their DC enablers. Nonetheless, I still think of myself as a Tea Party voter, and most of those I still know from that time do too.

#8 Comment By The Scientist 880 On February 16, 2018 @ 10:11 am

EliteCommInc,

“Excuse me, I have no idea where you live, but history is replete with the issues regarding assimilation.

I guess it depends what one means when they say assimilation. But in Ca, I am more than irritated with people unable to speak the English language and expecting me to learn spanish, hindi, or urto.
assimilation means you adjust to the society – your ways become their ways.

The only people who have actually totally immersed themselves when they could into such an ethos — are considered the most unintelligent and disruptive. Forever having to take second place to every new comer who doesn’t offend the sensibilities of the dominant society on sight.

You might want to ask them about assimilation.”

I notice you didn’t provide me with any actual evidence but instead decided to go with some weak sauce BS anecdote instead. Here is an article about an actual study.

“A study released Thursday by the Pew Hispanic Center, a project of the Pew Research Center, reports that in families like the Peredas, for whom Spanish is the dominant language among immigrant parents, English fluency increases across generations. By the third generation, Spanish has essentially faded into the background.

Latinos recognize that learning English is key to economic success, according to the study, which was based on survey data collected between 2002 and 2007.

“The ability to speak English is a crucial skill for getting a good job and integrating into the wider society,” said D’Vera Cohn, a senior writer at the research center, a nonpartisan research organization that does not advocate immigration policy. “Language is a vehicle for assimilation.” ”

[6]

#9 Comment By Roberto On February 16, 2018 @ 10:24 am

Great article.
Fiscal restraint was abandoned under Rove/Bush because there are no longer votes for it. Alleged fiscal conservatives will still typically re-elect people to national or local office if they bring home the bacon.

Trent Lott (R) said that pork barrel spending was that which occurred one district over from yours.

I live in PA, and our former governor, Fast Eddie Rendell, toured the state during his reelection campaign literally holding big cardboard grant checks for the cameras everywhere he went. He won easily.

His successor tried to sensibly cut the ridiculously bloated state university system, was tagged as “anti-education” by the teachers’ unions, and lost his reelection bid to a complete unknown.

Fiscal restraint from either party will only return with a) a revolt among young voters tired of paying for all this bloat, or b) a financial collapse far worse than 2008. Maybe both.

#10 Comment By One Guy On February 16, 2018 @ 1:01 pm

I live in California, and nobody here has ever expected me to “learn spanish, hindi, or urto.” I play soccer regularly with people who speak multiple languages. No language demands are made, ever.

#11 Comment By blackhorse On February 16, 2018 @ 8:30 pm

“the GOP is back to its Bush-era ways” Got news for you: they never left. Deficits only apply to Democrats.

#12 Comment By Weldon On February 17, 2018 @ 12:41 am

@Still TP: the bailout made the US government money. Shouldn’t you, as a taxpayer, applaud that?

#13 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 18, 2018 @ 1:36 pm

I should state on te outset my position in immigration is a full stop for no less than five years and no here illegally should be permitted to stay — period. No exceptions, no slipnslides, that includes DACA clans and their children —

“A study released Thursday by the Pew Hispanic Center, a project of the Pew Research Center, reports that in families like the Peredas, for whom Spanish is the dominant language among immigrant parents, English fluency increases across generations. By the third generation, Spanish has essentially faded into the background.”

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Based on your own reference assimilation is a difficult process. And a look at the social practices throughout US history make it clear that assimilation for some groups remains a hurdle even after 600 years on the continent and for others even longer on the continent remain aloof of the dominant group based on one singular factor alone.

The article The Slow Fade of the Pennsylvania Irish reviews an entire book on a group that met the primary factor yet, found assimilation a hardship, despite what ought to have been deep insider roots.
__________

“I play soccer regularly with people who speak multiple languages. No language demands are made, ever.”

Hmmmmm . . . sorry you missed the sarcasm . . .

We have signs in Spanish, voter registration in Spanish, translators, ESL, multilingual teachers . . . the same thing applies for chinese, korean . . . etc . . .

And you are correct, no one has demanded I learn spanish . . . you missed the sarcasm . . . of subtle congenial expectation of accommodating their difference as opposed to their having to make that change required.

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__________________

I know this game well by by liberals, republicans libertarians, etc. and despite voting for the current President, his immigration stance is all but bankrupt. That anyone is office of any kind who in any manner supports the undermining of any citizen in any manner should be driven out on a “rail” — padded if necessary.

[13]

The US foreign aide

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That does not include the generous and swift disaster relief that the US provides around the world. Nor does include the private sector wealth charities and business sectors nor the religious aide around the globe from US churches, and other religious organizations.

I supported NAFTA because I thought it a fair trade to share the wealth. The result is that the 500% growth of Mexico since, ranking just behind great britain at number 11 of developed nations was horded by the wealthy and doubled illegal immigration behavior across our borders.

we have citizens who get lousy legal representation and there are a tank full of lawyers representing illegal immigrants at multiple stages of any process.

Look you don’t have to love the US, but you certainly cannot live here and actually support policies that undermine citizens. Ya, ya, ya . . . I am a racist, a ethnocentric bigot, never been anywhere, , unsympathetic, war mongering old man – the country best be when I die . . ,
Ya ya ya . . . I get it.

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#14 Comment By Still TP On February 18, 2018 @ 6:37 pm

@Still TP: the bailout made the US government money. Shouldn’t you, as a taxpayer, applaud that?

Why would I applaud that? Do you even realize what you’re saying? No, of course I don’t want the government “making money” off the terrible losses of the financial crisis. I want the banks to pay the price of bad financial judgment, moral hazard, and criminality. And I want the government not to create moral hazard and put our money and economy at risk by encouraging the banks to make bad loans.