Anyone who’s been to a Tea Party rally knows this is no AstroTurf movement. These are ordinary citizens, rightly furious that the federal government has sold the country a junk mortgage on its future, sticking America with unsustainable debt.
Yet, some doubt the new activists’ sincerity, asking, in effect, “Where were you when George W. Bush was spending faster than Lyndon Johnson?” It’s a fair question.
Tea Party activists insist they’re nonpartisan, devoted only to staving off our looming fiscal apocalypse. If so, they can prove their authenticity by backing substantial cuts in entitlements and defense.
Tea Party pressure already forced President Barack Obama to call for a three-year freeze of nonsecurity spending. But that’s just 16 percent of the federal budget. You could zero that out entirely next year and still end up hundreds of billions in the hole.
Rail against earmarks, foreign aid and “welfare queens” to your heart’s content. But all that comes to a rounding error in a $3.7 trillion federal budget, more than 75 percent of which consists of defense and entitlements.
To his credit, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. — ranking member on the House Budget Committee — has proposed a “Roadmap for Americas Future” that makes serious cuts — $650 billion during the next decade, for starters. After raising the retirement age, voucherizing Medicare and reforming the tax system, Ryan’s plan would eliminate the long-term deficit, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Former Ronald Reagan official Bruce Bartlett argues that endorsing Ryan’s plan is the “minimum requirement” for anyone serious about cutting spending. But for the middle-class, middle-aged folks leading the Tea Party brigades, some of those cuts could bite pretty hard.
That’s why Bartlett doubts many of them have the fortitude to embrace what’s necessary to solve the budget crisis without raising taxes.
The Tea Party activists — often thought to be hawks — may further demonstrate their credibility by calling for cuts in the Pentagon’s $663 billion bottom line.
We’re spending ourselves into bankruptcy to maintain America’s Globocop role, to gird for possible war with China (an absurd proposition), and to pursue the profoundly unconservative project of trying to socially engineer failed societies like Afghanistan into modernity.
Ryan aside, it’s pretty clear that the GOP isn’t serious about reducing spending. House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, distanced the party from the Roadmap almost as soon as it was released.
In the middle of the recent fight against socialized medicine, Republicans fought hard to protect the chunk that’s already socialized. If there’s money to be saved trimming waste from Medicare, “we should spend it on Grandma!” Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said. GOP leader Michael Steele proposed a “contract with seniors” insulating Medicare from cuts.
But that’s no surprise. Politicians live to get re-elected, and they won’t change their behavior until voters force them to. What this country desperately needs is a political movement that will pressure them to change their ways.
The Tea Party activists could become that movement — if they’re serious.
Examiner columnist Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and author of “The Cult of the Presidency.”