Every movement has a welter of ideas, but, in the Tea Party, one idea sticks out: Its the central core message, opposition to big, unlimited government. And thats what really riles the professional Left the most. But they have trouble articulating their rage against Tea Party rage. And the reason seems clear (though I wish that it were otherwise): Leftists so love big government that even the most reasoned critique of it will seem extremist to them, no matter how cogent.
And nothing proves this better than the reflexive opposition to the idea of balancing budgets.
Theres nothing in modern-liberal ideology that says liberals must be committed to never-ending deficit spending and consequent piling up of debt. It is possible to add government services and pay for them by increasing taxes. And, as everyone knows, they do like taxes. High taxes.
But heres where politics comes in: The Big Government Left, in America, has to deal with the fact that Americans tend to be extremely uncomfortable with big government. Americans seem to object to high taxes (like they object to regulation) more than Europeans do. The country began, after all, as a tax revolt. So, the Big Government Left has compromised. It promises goodies to the people. And it establishes as many hand-outs and bailouts as the people can accept. But it cant get the people to pay for all this with direct, responsible tax increases. So they borrow.
Their ideology of Big Government doesnt say anything about deficit spending. They could have a common-sense attitude towards debt. But they sold away their common sense for political influence long ago. They dont even remember it.
They have painted themselves into a corner.
So no wonder they hate Tea Party common sense. It is a revolt that reaches to the very soul of their movement, and they stand compromised.
One could argue that the Tea Party challenge strikes even deeper at the heart of Big Government conservatives. Republican conservatives have even less excuse for going along with over-spending. Deficit spending and debt financing as a way of doing politics has been anathema to conservatives for ages. And yet Republican politicians have enthusiastically embraced this modern compromise — indeed, have forced the compromise — with a certain brittle bravado. And they are all condemned by the Tea Party challenge.
Because we have a two-party system, each side has traditionally blamed the other for the necessity to go overboard and further into debt. Democrats, if they had their way, would raise taxes, so they tend to blame deficits on tax-hating Republicans. Republicans, if they had their way, would lower spending, and so they tend to blame resulting deficits on Democratic big spenders.
But the sad truth is that this picture is more myth than reality.
Republicans have reveled in spending. Reagan may have increased government revenues by lowering marginal tax rates (Laffer Curve in action), but he still pushed for increased spending that went far beyond the revenue that poured in. Bush IIs two-term presidency did the same, and not just because of war: He also increased a major entitlement, pushing through a Medicare expansion (without paying for it).
And its not as if Democrats have not ballyhooed their own tax cuts, every chance they get. For its not just the Republicans they must compromise with. Its Americans.
There is blame enough to go around.
Whats required, now, is not blame but a repudiation of the dominant, bipartisan extremism, the extremism that knows no limit to government, no limit to spending, and no limit to the burden we will place on future taxpayers.
And what we need is not just a pro forma repudiation, either. What is required is a repudiation in practice.