Tea Party Says As Debt Rises, So Does Membership
Policy + Politics

Tea Party Says As Debt Rises, So Does Membership

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Earlier this week, before the results of the Florida primary were in, the Tea Party Patriots – one of the biggest groups within the Tea Party – held a conference call with the three leading  GOP presidential candidates. As nearly 6,000 Tea Party activists around Florida listened in, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum explained one by one how they’d cut government spending if they won the White House in November.

“They all said they’d make real cuts in spending and reduce [the deficit] from the current $1 trillion-plus,”  Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, told The Fiscal Times. “That’s a big deal. I don’t think real cuts  have  happened in my lifetime – and I’m 41. They also said they would repeal government-controlled health care legislation. So they are embracing what we’ve been talking about and campaigning on those issues – and that’s what we want to see happen.”

Newt Gingrich, for his part, said he would look at “how much could we save, how much could we cut immediately,” including spending on federal agencies. Mitt Romney said that the spending level “has to be lowered by the end of my first fiscal year.” And Rick Santorum said that the government would “spend less money every year over four years” if he were in the White House, until he could limit federal spending to 18 percent of GDP, down from 25 percent.

So did Martin trust every word of what  she heard? Of course not, she said – “we’re not that naïve. But it’s our responsibility to hold the candidates  to what they say.  And at  least they’re saying they’re going to make cuts. I don’t think they would have said that if it weren’t for the Tea Party movement.”

And that’s the crux, as far as she and others within the movement are concerned.

Reports of the Tea Party’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. The ranks of Tea Partiers are swelling, both Martin and her fellow co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, Mark Meckler, said in separate interviews this week; it’s driven in part by the growing budget deficit and debt problems plaguing this country. Not only are new members joining thousands of local chapters around the country,  “there are millions of people already working [within these chapters] because they believe in the ideas of the Tea Party,” Meckler told The Fiscal Times a few days ago. “We’re in extraordinary times. The deficit, the debt, the need for smaller government, spending issues – these are not just Tea Party issues. The majority of Americans right now say that their primary concerns are the deficit and the economy. People have lost faith in government and its ability to solve those things. That faith was misplaced from the beginning.”

But don’t just take their word for it: Reuters reported on Thursday  that “Americans are changing the way they think about the debt thanks to a noisy budget battle in Washington that prompted Standard & Poor’s to downgrade the top-notch U.S. credit rating and raised the specter of what was once thought inconceivable – the United States defaulting on its obligations.” What has also made people sit up and take notice, said Reuters:  the headline-grabbing debt crisis that’s “forced tough austerity measures across Europe and led to social unrest in some countries.”  countries.”

The Tea Party Patriots make the point  that young people – not just seniors worried about the future of their  Social Security checks – are sharing this loss of faith. This is partly why  Martin held a webinar on Thursday night with several dozen  college students around the country who are “concerned about debt and being able to get career jobs when they graduate,” said Martin on Friday morning.  “A lot of kids feel the government is an epic fail right now.  And they don’t trust either political party to solve the problem.”

Despite the opinion of folks like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) who have said  that “the Tea Party is dying out as the economy is getting better,” Martin’s point is  that the true measure of “success with this movement is that we go into the future and make a real difference. We need to teach our fellow citizens that we do have a responsibility, no matter who is elected, to hold our [public] officials accountable.   We’re watching what they do. In years past, [the American people] just haven’t done that. That’s why this country was able to spend and spend and spend.”

No matter who wins the White House in November, attests Martin – whether it’s President Obama again or not – “we will watch what that person does, watch the legislation submitted to Congress, watch what Congress does, and watch whatever executive orders come out of the White House.”

Martin adds, not incidentally: “I think a lot of the people who voted for President Obama – maybe it was the first time they were voting for president. He promised hope and change, but things haven’t gotten better. I think a lot of them are very disappointed in what’s happened in government in the last four years.”

One other final point (for now): Don’t ever compare the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movement, according to Martin and Meckler. “The Tea Party movement respects the rule of law and wants to work within the Constitution to achieve change, using freedom of speech, achieving change through elections, and pushing power from Washington back out to state and local governments,” says Martin. “The people of the Occupy Wall Street movement do not respect the rule of law. They’ve allowed crimes to happen within their protests. Bottom line:  We  don’t think government is the solution. Where they look to government to solve the problems, we think government is part of the problem.”