Oh, the promises have been bold and far-reaching. Some 300 candidates nationally have signed the Tea Party "Contract from America" calling for a balanced budget, radical simplification of the tax code and strict limits on federal spending. The chance that any of those will come to pass in the next two years? Zero.
Our campaigns are generally a matter of theater, not to be taken literally. We like to be the kind of people who vote for drastic change, but we don't want to be the kind of people who actually experience it. The gesture is generally enough.
One reason the status quo is so durable is that the differences between the two parties, when it comes to actual governing, are not nearly as large as they like to pretend. They expend vast amounts of cash in the indulgence of what Sigmund Freud called "the narcissism of small differences." But after the elections are over, the most polarizing and extreme positions tend to be neglected.
Republicans and tea party activists talked incessantly about the need to cut taxes. Big ideological difference, right? Well, no. Obama, after all, already cut them, and he wants to extend the Bush tax cuts for 98 percent of income earners. The party clashes take place mostly between the 40-yard lines.
Balancing the budget and shortening the tax code to a few thousand words, as the Contract from America envisions, wouldn't happen even if Republicans held all 535 seats in Congress and the presidency. They would require inflicting too much pain on voters -- including tea party sympathizers, who (according to a Bloomberg poll) prefer not to cut Medicare but expand it.
Repealing Obama Care is one demand that nearly all Republicans endorse. It's an empty pledge because they know any repeal bill -- if they were ever to pass one -- would be vetoed.
Rush Limbaugh says, so what? "Send Obama a repeal bill every week and make him veto it," he proposes. That's about as likely as Rush Limbaugh running a marathon every week.
Another idea is refusing to provide funds for the new health insurance program. But prospective House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, a tea party favorite, regretfully admits that's not feasible, either. Come Jan. 20, 2013, the health care reform will still be in place, and everyone in the Republican Party knows it.