Republicans in Congress have reached a crossroads – they must decide if they are a governing party or one so beholden to its ideological fringe that it is incapable of doing the basic work of a legislative body. How the party answers that question will determine not only the direction of policy on key issues and Republican prospects for reelection next year, but who will be president in 2013.
It is obvious that the Tea Party phenomenon has rocked Republican politics; pushing an already conservative party much further to the right and bringing into it a vast number of new members who are highly energized and deeply ideological, but very inexperienced at politics and not very knowledgeable about how Congress operates on a day-to-day basis. This has proven deeply frustrating to many veteran Republican legislators.
I have long sought a good explanation for where the Tea Party came from and the source of its intensity. Toward this end, I have been reading newly-elected Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-KY) book, “The Tea Party Goes to Washington.” He is, of course, a Tea Party favorite; son of another Tea Party favorite, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX); and someone who got elected by opposing the GOP establishment in Kentucky, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
According to Sen. Paul, much of what drives the Tea Party is sort of a delayed reaction to the disappointing presidency of George W. Bush. In a revealing passage from his book, Paul says:
“Imagine this – what if there had never been a President George W. Bush, and when Bill Clinton left office he was immediately replaced with Barack Obama. Now imagine Obama had governed from 2000 to 2008 exactly as Bush did – doubling the size of government, doubling the debt, expanding federal entitlements and education, starting the Iraq war – the whole works. To make matters worse, imagine that for a portion of that time, the Democrats actually controlled all three branches of government. Would Republicans have given Obama and his party a free pass in carrying out the exact same agenda as Bush? It’s hard to imagine this being the case, given the grief Bill Clinton got from Republicans.”
This argument hits close to home for me because after 30 years of working in Republican politics, including for Ronald Reagan and Rand’s father, I became deeply alienated from the party for the very reasons Rand explains. The final straw for me was the way Republicans rammed the Medicare Part D program into law in 2003. This took place at the very moment when the Medicare program was starting to seriously hemorrhage money. It was grossly irresponsible to add massively to its deficit largely for the purpose of buying re-election for Bush and his party in 2004.
voted for Medicare Part D, such as Paul Ryan,
treated as if they are paragons of fiscal responsibility.
This year, Medicare Part D will add about $55 billion to the deficit – far more than can be saved with all the budget cuts Republicans can possibly hope to achieve in fiscal 2011. Furthermore, it annoys me to see so many of those who voted for Medicare Part D, such as House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), treated as if they are paragons of fiscal responsibility. In fact, their concern for excessive spending is highly selective, directed almost entirely at programs supported by Democrats primarily to undercut their political support, not because they care so much about deficits.
My disgust with the GOP became so intense after the Medicare Part D debacle, I wrote a book on the subject. I thought if conservatives broke with Bush at that time and adopted a more Tea Party-like approach to getting our fiscal house in order that it might stave off the political disasters I saw looming in 2006 and 2008.
Republicans preferred to kill the messenger, leading to my permanent estrangement from both the party and the conservative movement. But perhaps my effort wasn’t entirely for naught. Apparently, one of the few readers of my book was Rand Paul, who quotes me saying this:
“The point is that George W. Bush has never demonstrated any interest in shrinking the size of government. And on many occasions, he has increased government significantly. Yet if there is anything that defines conservatism in America, it is hostility to government expansion. The idea of big government conservatism, a term often used to describe Bush’s philosophy, is a contradiction in terms.”
So why is it that I have been disdainful of the Tea Party from its first manifestation in early 2009? The main reason is that so many of its members simply don’t know what they are talking about; they seem to think that strong opinions are a substitute for facts, research and analysis. Consequently, many Tea Party members hold views on various topics that are, frankly, nuts, and these views have been embraced by some Republican voters as well.