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 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 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. “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 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. “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.