What we are seeing is a spontaneous rush of previously inactive citizens into political activity, a movement symbolized but not limited to the Tea Party movement, in response to the vast increases in federal spending that began with the TARP legislation in fall 2008 and accelerated with the Obama Democrats' stimulus package, budget and health care bills.
The Tea Party folk are focusing on something real. Federal spending is rising from about 21 percent to about 25 percent of gross domestic product -- a huge increase in historic terms -- and the national debt is on a trajectory to double as a percentage of gross domestic product within a decade. That is a bigger increase than anything since World War II.
Now the political scientists' maxim seems out of date. The Democrat who won the Pennsylvania 12 special election opposed the Democrats' health care law and cap-and-trade bills. The Tea Party-loving Republican who won the Senate nomination in Kentucky jumped out to a big lead. The defeat of the three appropriators, who between them have served 76 years in Congress (and whose fathers served another 42), is the canary that stopped singing in the coal mine.
Will Republicans come forward with a bold plan to roll back government spending? The natural instinct of politicians is to avoid anything bold. The British Conservatives faced this question before the election this month. When Britain was prosperous, they promised no cuts at all. When recession hit, they were skittish about proposing cuts and mostly unspecific when they did.
That may have been why they fell short on May 6 of the absolute majority they expected. Now they're in a coalition with the third-party Liberal Democrats, who proposed more cuts, and the cuts they've announced have been widely popular. Boldness seems to work where skittishness did not.
Unlike the Conservatives, Republicans have no elected party leader. But House Republicans like Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy and Peter Roskam are setting up websites to solicit voters' proposals for spending cuts, while Paul Ryan has set out a long-term road map toward fiscal probity. Worthy first steps. I think voters are demanding a specific plan to roll back Democrats' spending. Republicans need to supply it.