22 April 2010

Passing on tea

Republican politicians like to paint the tea party movement as some sort of amorphous, trans-partisan uprising by Americans from all sides. This isn't the case at all.

Although 43 percent of tea partiers claim they have no party affiliation, 70 percent describe themselves as "conservative" and just 7 percent as "liberal." Eighty-seven percent opposed the Democrats' health care bill. Given that the bill typically garnered 35-45% support in most surveys, it's obvious that this group is not actually a cross-section of America at all, but rather is actually a huge chunk of the Republican base.

Before continuing, in case the last 14 months of posts haven't made this clear enough, let me also point out that I am among the majority of Americans who disapproves of Barack Obama's first year and a quarter in the White House. He has shown naivete in dealing with the hard-liners in Iran, passed a health care bill that completely ignores the root problem of the crisis (skyrocketing costs) and has already run up a trillion dollar-plus deficit. He has, as expected, governed from the left, and shown little interest in bipartisanship.

The bottom line is that you won't have to look too hard on this site for examples of us criticizing the president.

Good. Glad we could get that out of the way.

There are legitimate small-government critiques of the Obama administration's policies. I'd argue that most Americans are concerned by the national debt and by how much the last two administrations have spent. I don't believe this is limited to the Obama administration. Bush left office with a 30 percent approval rating for a reason. As even Obama apologist Andrew Sullivan has noted, over the past decade, big government has come back with a vengeance.

My first critique of the tea party movement is that Obama's policies in many areas are simply continuations of Bush's policies. Bailouts, deficit spending, the refusal to raise income taxes even despite a skyrocketing national debt, etc. Bush was simply an ideological predecessor to Obama. He inherited a $200 billion stimulus that he immediately squandered; his vice president was quoted as saying "deficits don't matter"; he passed a huge unfunded prescription drug liability (Medicare Part D); non-defense discretionary spending rose 10% annually (a rate three times faster than such spending rose under Clinton); he presided over great waste and fiscal abuse at the Department of Defense; he began two wars, neither of which were actually factored into any budget; and he doubled the size of the national debt in eight years.

So my question to tea partiers is this: Where were you while this was going on? Because I'm pretty sure you weren't out protesting.

This is my problem. The tea partiers are the people who supported Bush. In fact, a recent CBS/New York Times poll noted that tea partiers still support Bush at a 57 percent rate, nearly double what Bush's outgoing approval rating was among the general electorate. Therefore, by and large, the Republican base was the swath of people supporting Bush until the very end. And as we have explained, a group who boasts an 87% opposition to Obamacare can be called nothing if not "Republican base." There is no other argument. You are willfully blinding yourself to the realities of who actually shows up at these rallies if you think otherwise.

Secondly, by extension, I have a problem with the lack of seriousness of these folks' policy positions.

Ask any tea party activist, and they'll tell you they're primarily upset about two things: Their taxes are too high, and the deficit is out of control. Fine.

But what tea partiers lack are genuinely serious proposals for either reducing taxes or more importantly, reducing the deficit. It's patently obvious to most of us that if you cut taxes, as Bush did and as Reagan did, government revenues will go down, and the chances of running a deficit increase. As a result, if you cut revenues, government spending has to go down.

Furthermore, tea partiers lack the fundamental understanding that Reagan had when he entered the California governorship in 1968:

If you're facing a budget crisis, you cannot cut taxes. Of course, it's best to let Americans keep as much of their money as possible. But when we're a trillion dollars in debt, the government can't possibly lose revenue by slashing tax rates. That's not a serious fiscal policy.

Twenty percent of the federal budget is devoted to defense spending. Obama cut a few of the most wasteful parts out last year, and most conservatives shrieked in opposition. He wants to weaken our defenses! they cried. When Ron Paul similarly speaks of the growing military-industrial complex that is helping cripple our nation's finances, and when he points out that conservatives' small government critique should cover more than just discretionary spending, he gets booed. On the whole, conservatives flatly refuse to cut a dime from the defense budget.

Another 41 percent of the federal budget is devoted to entitlements -- the vast majority of which is Medicare and Social Security. With the baby boomers beginning to retire, this number will only increase. Obamacare cut Medicare by $500 billion over the next ten years, adding another 9 years of solvency onto Medicare's life, and conservatives once again shrieked in opposition that Obama was trying kill off old folks. Many conservatives (just like any segment of the populace) are nearing the retirement age, and they want the government's hands off their entitlement programs. Led by congressional leadership, Republicans/conservatives suddenly have become quite protective of Medicare and Social Security.

Defense and entitlements make up somewhere between 60 and 65 percent of the entire federal budget. If you want to make a dent in the federal budget, those are the programs you need to begin cutting. Period.

The rest of the federal budget is roughly apportioned as follows:

14 percent goes to programs under the "aid" umbrella, which includes the refundable portion of the earned-income and child tax credits; programs that provide cash payments to certain individuals or households, including supplemental security income for the elderly, disabled or the very poor; and things like food stamps, school meals, housing, energy and child care assistance to low-income families.

7 percent goes to benefits for federal retirees and veterans.

6 percent goes to interest payments on the national debt.

3 percent goes to education.

3 percent goes to transportation infrastructure -- interstates, bridges, airports, etc.

2 percent goes to scientific and medical research -- the National Institutes of Health, primarily.

1 percent goes to various international efforts, such as those that provide humanitarian aid.

What would you cut? Do you want to stop building/maintaining highways? Do you want to de-fund the NIHs, thereby completely doing away with prescription, medical treatment and medical device innovations? Do you want to stop giving a dime to, I don't know, Israel and Afghanistan? Do you want to cut benefits for those who have fought for our country overseas? Do you want to do away with tax credits?

Pretty difficult, isn't it?

The bottom line is that the marginal tax rates are as low as they've been in 40 years. The top tax bracket was in the 70s during the 1960s and 70s. Reagan cut the top tax bracket from 70 to 36 percent; Clinton raised it to 39.5; Bush cut it back to 36, and although some observers expect that Obama will eventually raise it again, he hasn't shown himself dumb enough yet to raise taxes to while the country is trying to climb out of a recession. The bottom line is that the tax burden shouldered by the American populace is actually at its lowest point in years. Americans aren't being taxed at European clip. And Americans pay no more taxes under Obama than they did under Bush. This cannot be disputed. So the argument that America's tax burden is out of control is actually quite weak.

If it's out of control now, it was out of control in 1987 when Reagan was in the White House.

The bottom line is that the tea party movement -- and it's leaders Palin, Bachmann, et al. -- don't have serious proposals for actually reducing the deficit. It's out of control, sure, but if they're really serious, why didn't they stand with Obama when he cut $100 billion of waste out of the DoD budget? If you're not willing to take a tough stand against DoD's out-of-control budget and the entitlement programs, you're never, ever going to make a big enough dent in the deficit to make a difference.

But that's ok with tea partiers. They don't have to worry about making policy, nor even competently arguing about it. They can just stomp around, waive signs, chant slogans and complain.

Finally, the reason I have a difficult time taking the tea party movement seriously is what I see as an enormous personal resentment toward the president. I didn't vote for the man and actually thought he ran a highly disingenuous campaign, yet I find myself having to defend him personally.

A Harris poll commissioned in early April finds that 57% of Republicans think that Obama is a Muslim. See here. Forty-five percent believe he was not born in the United States. See here. Thirty-eight percent believe he is doing many of the things that Hitler did. That one isn't even worth responding to.

What is most stunning above all else is that 24 percent of Republicans believe "he may be the anti-Christ" and 22 percent believe "he wants the terrorists to win." See here.

This is just bizarre. How does one possibly argue with another person who genuinely believes that the president is the anti-Christ?

And lest readers think that these opinions are jacked up by the evil mainstream media and are not representative of 21st century conservatism, I can attest that members of my own extended family have adopted many of the above beliefs. This is not some fringe belief structure, but rather based on my own personal experience, the Harris findings seem reasonably representative of conservatives' view of Obama.

Certainly, folks, it's your right under the First Amendment to protest. God bless you.

But the First Amendment also gives me the right to point out that you make our once-great movement look stupid.

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