Monday, January 10, 2011

After the Tea Party

Listen to Harry Reid saying something about the Tea Party movement that’s trivially true and spectacularly misleading  (click on the image to expand):


Reid is probably right that we won’t be hearing the words “tea party” much in a couple years when the economy will probably be substantially better than it is today. But that doesn't mean, as he suggests, that the Tea Party movement is nothing more than the expression of temporary economic anxiety.

Think of the movement spearheaded by Ross Perot in the 1990s.  It, like today’s Tea Party movement, was animated by popular fears that the federal government was headed toward insolvency. There was a time in early 1992 when serious people thought that Perot might be George H.W. Bush’s principal competition in the upcoming presidential campaign. By 1996, however, Perot was widely perceived as a nut, trying to move a political agenda four years past its “sell by” date.

Yet while Perot was no longer leading a formidable political movement, a central feature of Perotism was flourishing inside the major parties. Bill Clinton had won the Presidency with a plurality of the vote promising a middle class tax cut and an ambitious program of social investment including HillaryCare. But within a year of his arrival in Washington, the principal strategist of his presidential campaign, James Carville, was remarking: “I used to think if there was reincarnation, I wanted to come back as the president or the pope or a .400 baseball hitter. But now I want to come back as the bond market.  You can intimidate everybody.”

By 1995, Clinton was squaring off against New Gingrich who’d made balancing the budget a prominent provision of his Contract with America. They’d spend the next three years jousting to see who could establish himself as the more insistent voice of fiscal sobriety. By that time, you didn’t hear much about Ross Perot anymore, but that was because the major parties had stolen his thunder.

I expect substantially the same thing to happen to the Tea Party movement. It’s too early to say whether it has already captured the Republican Party, but it’s surely won itself an enduring place within it. And who would have believed two years ago the main Democratic pitch for not repealing ObamaCare would focus less on the incontestable fact that repeal will certainly deprive millions of people of affordable health insurance than on the quite contestable theory that repeal will increase the deficit.

Even if we’re not hearing that much about Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann in a couple of years, we’ll still be feeling the impact of the Tea Party movement.

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