The hidden message of the tea party candidates

Tea party candidates claim to want small government, but what they mean is small taxes and big benefits. That's a recipe for exploding deficits, not good government.

Rob Carr / AP
Delaware Republican Senate nominee Christine O'Donnell addressed supporters during a Tea Party Express news conference in support of her election bid, in Wilmington, Del., in this photo taken Sept. 7. Will tea party candidates' big spending, low taxes platform make it harder for others to ask for fiscal responsibility?

The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus is “despondent” about the victory of the Tea Party candidate (Christine O’Donnell) over the more moderate Republican candidate (incumbent congressman Mike Castle) in the primary for Delaware’s open U.S. Senate seat. I agree that it’s bad news. As Ruth explains:

First, I had thought the silver lining of this election year might be to produce a Senate with a more robust cadre of moderate Republicans. That caucus has pretty much dwindled to the two senators from Maine, with very occasional company from colleagues such as Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown and departing Ohio Sen. George Voinovich. It’s awfully hard for a caucus of two to break with the party…

But not as scary as reason number two: the ripple effect of victories such as O’Donnell’s on other Republican lawmakers. Republican members of Congress look at races such as those in Utah, Alaska and now Delaware and think: There but for the grace of the Tea Party go I. They will be that much more watchful of protecting their right flank against a primary challenge. They will be that much less likely to take a political risk in the direction of bipartisanship. In this sense, it matters less whether O’Donnell will win the general election — that doesn’t seem likely — than that she won the primary.

The Delaware result might be good news for both Tea Partyers and Democrats. It is not good news for the cause of good government.

That is the irony–that the Tea Party movement has become not so much a movement for “good government” as a movement for “small government.” Except that when you really listen to what most Tea Party candidates argue for, it’s not to shrink government by cutting the government’s largest programs (e.g., Medicare and Social Security). It’s not to propose cutting any spending that actually benefits any of their voters. In other words, it’s not to lay out any specific ways they would be able to reduce government spending to the levels that would qualify as “small government” spending. That’s because most Americans don’t really want small-government spending, when you get right down to it. Mostly these candidates seem to be promising what most Americans like to fantasize about: small-government taxes (low ones), with big-government spending. Of course, the basic math of that implies we’re going to be laden with many more years of big-deficits government.

With this early Tea Party victory, I expect candidates are just going to be more afraid of speaking any truth about the need to raise taxes or cut benefits.

So contrary to what these candidates may claim about their being for “fiscal responsibility,” I expect that whatever campaign slogans, promises, and attacks we hear shouted about during this campaign season leading up to the November general elections, they can be roughly translated as candidates saying to their opponents: “I dare you to be fiscally responsible.” The lesson from yesterday’s election is that that’s a winning strategy.

So much for “good” government.

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