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Morning Jay: The Uses and Abuses of the Tea Party

6:00 AM, Aug 10, 2011 • By JAY COST
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The following facts about the federal budget deficit are, as far as I know, widely accepted:

First. We have a long-term deficit problem that is due to the rising costs of federal entitlements, above all Medicare.

Second. Our current deficit is substantially larger than normal, due to several factors:

- The economic recession, which decreased the amount of tax revenue the federal government collects;

- An increase in government spending, in the form of automatic stabilizers, to mitigate the human toll of the recession;

- An increase in government spending, in the form of Keynesian stimulus, to restart the engine of economic growth;

- The continued weakness of the economy, which has kept tax revenues down and the cost of automatic stabilizers up.

Nowhere on this list do I see anything regarding the Tea Party. So why is this movement now so frequently mentioned as a prime factor in the country’s deficit woes?

To answer this question, we must understand that Democrats are in desperate need of a red herring. If Obama goes down next year, a whole slew of congressional Democrats will go down with him – especially in the Senate, where the Democrats must defend 22 seats, 9 of which are from states that George W. Bush won in 2004.

As a political issue, the Democrats own the deficit, if for no other reason than the party has occupied the White House during its runaway growth. As dangerous as this is as an issue, it is secondary to our terrible, no good, rotten economic recovery, which the Democrats also own.

It was the Democrats who designed the stimulus in early 2009, promising that its enactment would keep the unemployment rate under 8 percent. It was the Democrats who then turned their attention to the various items on the liberal checklist – cap and trade, student loan federalization, and of course health care – even as the unemployment rate passed 10 percent. It was the Democrats who endeavored to implement whole volumes of new federal regulations, which have scared the living daylights out of businesses.

The recession may be the political fault of George W. Bush, but the Democrats must take the blame for the disappointing recovery, for it was they who had total control of the federal government in 2009 and 2010.

And the Democrats are set to pay for it – big time. Goldman Sachs recently revised its 2012 economic forecast; it now sees growth ranging between 2 percent and 2.5 percent next year, and unemployment edging up to 9.25 percent. If this forecast turns out to be accurate, then Barack Obama will lose next year by a large margin, and scores of congressional Democrats will follow him down to defeat. 

So, party leaders are in a full-blown panic, and rightly so. They are desperate to turn the public’s gaze away from their own shortcomings, and no doubt some too-clever-by-half pollster or focus group hack suggested blaming the Tea Party.

Sure, why not!

The interesting thing about the Tea Party is that it does not have a lot in common with any kind of party. A “party” – in the political sense – implies organization, membership, internal rules and practices to govern the behavior of its members, and so on. Even the social sense of the word implies some kind of structure; after all, you can’t go to Johnson’s party down the street while simultaneously playing X-Box in your basement.

While there are Tea Party meet-ups, marches on Washington, and even groups claiming to speak for the Tea Party as a whole (including a congressional caucus), it is nevertheless hard to think of the Tea Party as a literal party. After all, the actual number of people affiliated with any of these activities is a pittance compared to the 25 percent or so of American adults who consider themselves “Tea Partiers.” We’re talking about roughly 58 million people nationwide, more than the number who voted for Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Being a Tea Partier for 95 percent or more of these people suggests not a political or even social group affiliation, but a state of mind, one that evokes the sentiments of the original Boston Tea Party: that the government does not reflect the will of the people, and that it is burdening them to take care of a privileged minority. For the original Boston Tea Partiers, the great government transgression was taxation; for today’s Tea Partiers, it is a mountain of debt that will have to be paid eventually.

The ambiguity of 95 percent of the Tea Party is what makes it an attractive target for the Democratic party and its friends in the mainstream media. There is no leader of the Tea Party. No building where the Tea Party meets. No set of rules and regulations that enumerates the privileges and responsibilities of its members. Thus, the "Tea Party" can be whatever the Democrats need it to be.

Were they a bunch of terrorists? Sure! Were they intransigent? Absolutely! As long as "they" stay relatively obscure, Democrats can ascribe almost any quality they want to them. On the other hand, if they start naming names, they're only going to prompt a retort from the accused, who will surely respond with talk of "Cut, Cap, and Balance," which polls extremely well. So, how does that advance their interests?

As a great example of this, check out this clip from ABC's This Week. At about the 1:30 mark, Christiane Amanpour says that Steve Rattner called Congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah an "economic terrorist," to which Rattner hurriedly responds "not the congressman personally..." Of course not! The charge is rhetorically useful only if its object is a vague, unidentifiable group that cannot respond with righteous indignation.

This is similar to Richard Nixon’s “silent majority,” one of the most ingenious rhetorical devices in modern political history. Once Nixon defined this group, he could put whatever words in their mouths he wanted. After all, it’s not like he identified Frank Thompson from down the street as part of the “silent majority,” so it really didn’t matter if Frank disagreed with Nixon or not.

However, there is a problem for Democrats with turning the Tea Party into the bogeyman. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is a fantastic movie because you do not see see the shark until you’re already well into the film, but eventually you see it. If you never did, the movie would have been forgotten long ago.

The Democrats are never going to be able to produce this terrible, villainous Tea Party for the world to behold. It will forever remain in the shadows, secretly making sure that nothing goes Obama’s way between now and Election Day. This makes for a very bad foil. There’s really no third act, no moment when Obama and the forces of light finally confront the Tea Party and its minions of darkness. Worse for the president, he does not get to square off against “the Tea Party” on the ballot. Instead, he will probably face Rick Perry or Mitt Romney, both of whom are living, breathing politicians with actual records, and no history of terrorism.

So yes, the Tea Party has become a red herring for the Democratic party and the liberals who dominate it, meant to distract the public from their own terrible record. Yet, as red herrings go, it is a pretty useless one – and a testimony to just how worried they are about next year.

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