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August 1st, 2011
Tea Party Freshman Went to Capitol Hill

While the details of the debt ceiling deal remain fuzzy, this much is clear: Barack Obama may be president, but the Tea Party is now running Washington. How did this happen? Simple; this is what American politics looks like when there’s no left-wing movement and no war.

Let’s start with the first point. Liberals are furious that President Obama agreed to massive spending cuts, and the promise of more, without any increase in revenues. They should be: Given how much the Bush tax cuts have contributed to the deficit (and how little they’ve spurred economic growth), it’s mind-boggling that they’ve apparently escaped this deficit-reduction deal unscathed.

Obama, like FDR, had a reasonably successful first two years: a stimulus package that while too small for the circumstances was still large by historical standards and a health care bill that while subpar in myriad ways still far exceeded the efforts of other recent Democratic presidents.

And then, unlike FDR, he ran into a grassroots movement of the right.

Historians will long debate why the financial collapse of 2008 produced a right-wing populist movement and not a left-wing one.

Perhaps it’s because Obama didn’t take on Wall Street, perhaps it’s because with labor unions so weak there’s just not the organizational muscle to create such a movement, perhaps it’s because trust in government is so low that pro-government populism is almost impossible.

Whatever the reason, it was the emergence of the Tea Party as the most powerful grassroots pressure group in America that laid the groundwork for Sunday night’s deal.

The fact that polling showed Obama getting the better of the debt ceiling debate barely mattered. The 2010 elections brought to Congress a group of Republicans theologically committed to cutting government. And they have proved more committed, or perhaps just more reckless, than anyone else in Washington.

 The Tea Party, by contrast, is a post-war on terror phenomenon. Many of the newly-elected Republicans are indifferent, if not hostile, to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

They’re happy to cut the defense budget, especially since cutting the defense budget makes it easier to persuade Democrats to swallow larger cuts in domestic spending.

It’s the reverse of the cold war dynamic. During the cold war—especially in the Nixon and Reagan years--conservatives accepted that overall spending would go up in order to ensure that some that increase went to defense. Today, conservatives accept defense cuts in order to ensure that overall spending goes down.

The good news is that the Tea Party, more than Barack Obama, has now ended the neoconservative dream of an ever-expanding American empire.

Given the era of fiscal scarcity we’re now entering, those neocon and progressive dreams are now likely dead for many years to come. Meanwhile, the Tea Party’s dream of a government reduced to its pre-welfare state size becomes ever real. 





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