After the latest round of primaries, some lessons can already be drawn from this political year. Incumbents are not popular, especially Democratic incumbents. Democrats' big government programs are hugely unpopular. Economic distress has made Americans yearn not for more government but for less.
How to explain something contrary to the New Deal historians' teaching that economic distress increases support for big government? Clues can be obtained, I think, by examining what amounts to the founding document of the tea party movement, Rick Santelli's "rant" on the CME trading floor in Chicago, telecast live by CNBC on Feb. 19, 2009.
That was less than one month into the Obama administration. The stimulus package had been jammed through Congress almost entirely by Democratic votes six days before, but the Democrats' health care and cap-and-trade bills were barely into gestation. Chrysler and General Motor had received temporary bailouts, but their bankruptcies were months in the future.
"The government is promoting bad behavior," Santelli began. The object of his scorn was the Obama administration's Homeowners Affordability and Stability Plan providing aid to homeowners delinquent on their mortgages.
"This is America!" Santelli declared. "How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor's mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can't pay their bills?"
Granted, the words are not as elegant as those of Thomas Jefferson or John Adams. But the thought is clear. Santelli was arguing that the people who, in Bill Clinton's felicitous phrase, "work hard and play by the rules" shouldn't have to subsidize those who took on debts that they couldn't repay.
This was both an economic and a moral argument. Economic, because subsidies to the improvident are an unproductive investment. We know now that very many of the beneficiaries of the administration's mortgage modification programs ended up in foreclosure anyway. Subsidies just prolonged the agony.
But it's also a moral argument. Taking money away from those who made prudent decisions and giving it to people who made imprudent decisions is casting society's vote for imprudence and self-indulgence. It mocks thrift and makes chumps out of those who pay their own way. We should, Santelli argued, "reward people that can carry the water rather than just drink the water."
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