A reader in Alaska prefers the activism the Tea Party is doing to the inactivism of the mainstream Republicans and Democrats on the debt. From his letter:

As much as I enjoy your writing, I’m troubled by the conversation in your blog about the TEA party. I agree completely that the emotionalism, and the confusion of politics with religion. I saw this map from the tax foundation right after you posted the story on the EBT riot at your local walmart:

http://taxfoundation.org/blog/monday-map-federal-aid-state-budgets

It raises some serious questions, that frankly only the TEA party is even grappling with, however poorly. What is Louisiana going to do when the 45% of it’s budget that come from the federal government gets reduced by 20%? How are the communities around Ft. Polk going to survive when the $980 million in annual payroll just stops? The Air Force employs 15,000 people at Barksdale, are there 15,000 jobs in North Louisiana that can be found when these people get laid off? What are the poor in Louisiana who are presently dependent on medicaid, SNAP, EBT, and Section 8 going to do when there’s no food, no way to pay for it and no way to help to those people? Starve?

Louisiana might be especially dependent on Federal spending, but Alaska, supposedly the least dependent at only one quarter of our annual state budget, would be completely screwed without Fed spending. Entire communities would be forced to dissolve, tens of thousand will be displaced. and — real no BS — starvation isn’t unlikely.

Criticize the TEA party for bad tactics, bad politics, and bad manners all you want. But no one else is talking about the fact that something drastic needs to be done, or we are headed for a very, very bad place. Is anybody outside the TEA Party going to do anything about this? No.There’s no way the Landrieu family is going to tell  the ghetto blacks that are their power base to start living right. Mitch McConnell not going to go after ADM or Monsanto, and nobody is going to tell the defense department to stop spending. We need to have a grown up conversation about government in this country, and the only people even attempting to start with 2+2=4 are demonized as crazy extremists.

I appreciate this letter, and very generally endorse the points that something serious has to be done about spending, because we are heading toward a future in which taxes will not be high enough to cover spending. The problem is that the two elephants in the deficit room are Medicare and Social Security — two things that most Republicans (and most Americans) believe should be left alone. In a 2011 poll, from the last Washington showdown, the McClatchy-Marist poll’s results said:

More than eight in ten registered voters — 81% — say major cuts to Social Security and Medicare should not be included in the deficit reduction proposal while 17% report they should be, and 2% are unsure.

I don’t have any more updated polls near to hand, but please post them in the comments thread if you do. I see no reason to think that the public’s opinion has shifted much. As I was looking for newer polls, I was thinking about an argument I had last year with an older friend who strongly supports the Tea Party. He was railing against how out-of-control government spending was going to destroy this country. I pointed out that the greatest threats to the deficit are Medicare and Social Security. Is he in favor of cutting Medicare and means-testing Social Security? Oh, hell no. “We earned that,” he said. He didn’t want to cut defense either. This puts my Tea Party friend well within the GOP majority.

There are two problems with this position. The minor problem is that of discretionary spending (that is, the part of the federal budget that can be cut), defense takes up a little more than half the total.  The major problem is that all the projected growth in spending will occur in entitlements — Medicare and Social Security — and interest on the debt:

0003_spending-growth-driver-crop

The point is this: if you wall off defense, Social Security, and Medicare/Medicaid, you can’t do anything meaningful about the debt. But there is no significant constituency for tackling any of these, except possibly for defense.

Damned if the Wall Street Journal‘s Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., didn’t point out just the other day that the position of my Tea Party friend is going to become the new conservative normal. Excerpt:

Not appreciated is the powerful new meme Mr. Obama has handed them, which will transform entitlement politics in our country. The new “conservative” position will be to defend Social Security and Medicare, those middle-class rewards for a life of hard work and tax-paying, against Mr. Obama’s vast expansion of the means-tested welfare state for working-age Americans.

This will discomfit traditional free marketers. They know Medicare and Social Security are generous in excess to the taxes that beneficiaries paid into them.

Indeed, good conservatives of a certain feather disapprove of universal entitlements because they are universal, believing government interventions should be need-based and temporary if possible.

But this reformist conservatism (to which your columnist also subscribes) appears to have had its last hurrah. That hurrah came and went when President Bush failed to interest the country in converting a tax-and-transfer retirement system into one based on private accounts. Paul Ryan (and many others) will have to make some adjustments. Look for means testing possibly even to evolve into a new pejorative in Republican mouths, suggesting undeserved benefits for groups that mostly vote Democrat.

“Defund ObamaCare” will turn out to be a slogan of genius that resurfaces again and again as the Affordable Care Act, because of its flawed design, needs more and more public funding to keep it afloat. Republicans secretly love the idea that Democrats will be stuck with the Obama welfare state, setting up fights in our overstretched republic between Mr. Obama’s “unearned” handouts and the “earned” handouts of the traditional entitlements. Team Romney was already trying out the new meme in the last election, casting ObamaCare as a threat to Medicare.

My sense is that most Tea Partiers are chasing an illusion.