It is fitting that the first significant legislative struggle since the midterms concerns the extension of the Bush tax cuts. One of the stories some conservatives told themselves in 2010 was that the Tea Party movement had succeeded in getting the Republican Party “out from under Bush.” This has become a recurring theme in Peggy Noonan’s columns in the last few months. According to the new received wisdom on the right since 2006, it was principally Bush’s spending that harmed GOP fortunes, and the Tea Party was supposed to represent a reaction against this. “The tea party rejected his administration’s spending, overreach and immigration proposals, among other items, and has become only too willing to say so,” Noonan wrote back in October. Granted, for many Tea Partiers, they became only too willing to say so beginning in 2009, but at least they said something.
Fresh off of a significant electoral victory aided in part by the Tea Party movement, what has been the first and most pressing priority of the Republican leadership? To make sure that the deficit-expanding tax cuts they failed to pay for in the Bush years continue to increase the deficit in the future, and to make sure that they don’t pay for them now. On the whole, the tax cuts were arguably the one Bush administration policy at home that satisfied most conservatives, and if this continues to be true we will have confirmation of just how little conservatives are concerned about adding to the debt even now.
It is certainly true that the Tea Party movement opposes tax increases, but it is also supposed to be interested in bringing public debt under control. The leadership has made clear that it is quite happy to add significantly to the debt through tax cut extensions, payroll tax cuts, and continued spending. Bush-era habits of spend-and-borrow have resumed within weeks of the midterms that supposedly represented the repudiation of these habits. Will the new members of the House and Senate rebel against this rapid return to the old ways? If Tea Partiers and conservatives are at all serious about reducing the debt, they need to make sure that they do.