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The Tea Party and the Midterms

A Commentary by Joe Conason

Friday, November 05, 2010

The urge to punish politicians is understandable no matter who is in power, because they inevitably disappoint the fond hopes of their admirers and raise the hackles of their detractors -- and yet that same urge is almost never satisfied for long. In the case of the midterm spanking administered to Democrats, the likelihood that voters will get what they claim to want as a result are even smaller than usual.

The fleeting thrill of ousting a particular elected official (or even dozens of them) ultimately will not bring much comfort to anyone inspired by more than mere partisan fury.

The tea party movement and its followers claim that they were originally motivated by the failure of Republicans and Democrats alike to balance the budget, improve the economy, and reduce taxes and government waste. But their energies were diverted toward the restoration of Republican power. And the goals of the Republican leadership are entirely oriented toward a partisan victory in 2012, as they have declared more than once during the election season.

What that means in practice is no progress on the budget, the economy, taxation or the size and scope of government. As nostrums go, the tea party's evident enthusiasm for throwing teachers, police officers, firefighters and other public employees out of work makes very little sense in a depressed economy.

Similarly, the insistence of some voters (and the politicians who pander to them) that taxes must be cut while restoring fiscal balance is mathematically impossible -- unless we are prepared to contemplate massive cuts in Medicare, defense spending, homeland security, environmental protection, infrastructure maintenance and a host of other essential functions. What would the angry voters say about national security when a spending reduction of 25 percent encourages a new round of terrorist attacks?

Most likely, they would complain furiously, never noticing the consequences of their own behavior.

Polls have showed again and again this year that many voters know little or nothing about the actual content of the health care reform, banking reform and stimulus legislation that have aroused so much opposition. Most voters have no idea that the hated "bailouts" -- whose passage was among the few truly bipartisan initiatives in recent years -- were not only successful but almost free of cost to the taxpayers. And most seem unable to conceive of the disaster we would be facing now, as a nation, if Barack Obama and George W. Bush had let the financial and insurance sectors collapse along with the auto industry.

Whatever rearrangement of power on Capitol Hill results from the midterm, the surest outcome is that there will be no change in the trends that supposedly irritate the tea party. Even if the Republicans fulfill all the promises they have recklessly offered to their own right wing, those trends are likely to continue and even worsen. There will be no significant reduction in the deficit or the debt. There will be no substantial reform of the tax system. And there will be no safeguard against future bailouts and corporate abuse -- especially if the Republicans fulfill their promises.

Even if the Republicans could somehow force through their dream budgets, the outcome would only be more of the same: enormous tax breaks for the very highest earners, likely tax increases for everyone else at either the federal or local levels or both, and higher deficits for decades into the future as revenues fall. And if they somehow repeal the banking reform legislation that passed this year, that may well ensure the repetition of the same bailouts that inspired the rise of the tea party.

The voters have told us that they're mad as hell and won't take it anymore. But their madness has ironically guaranteed that they will get more of exactly what they profess to despise.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer (www.observer.com).

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