The tea party: smaller government, but more red ink

Candidates elected on platforms supporting very large tax cuts and small spending reductions are likely to oppose aggressive efforts to reduce deficits, not back them.

Mel Evans/AP Photo/ File
In this April 15 file photo, a woman wears tea bags hanging from her hat as she attends a tea party rally in New Jersey.

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, among others, thinks the tea party movement might help drive deficit reduction. I disagree. I don’t believe most tea party leaders or candidates are remotely interested in slowing the flow of federal red ink.

They are plainly interested in tax cuts—a core belief that appears repeatedly on Websites, position papers, and speeches throughout the movement. And while tea partiers say they favor smaller government, many in fact propose to shrink it in only trivial ways—by cutting earmarks or waste and abuse. Candidates elected on platforms supporting very large tax cuts and small spending reductions are likely to oppose aggressive efforts to reduce deficits, not back them. While some analysts see the tea partiers as the 21st century progeny of Ross Perot’s fiscal conservatism, nothing could be further from the truth.

Of course, it isn’t easy to sort out their views. The tea party is many organizations and individuals attracted to a loose ideology of conservative populism. They loathe taxes and President Obama with equal fervor, but otherwise agree on little. Yet, according to an April CBS News poll of self-described tea party supporters, nearly half say their main goal is to reduce the role of the federal government. Only 6 percent say it is to cut the deficit. And as tea party candidates begin to win Republican primaries the outlines of the movement’s agenda is coming clearer.

Two national organizations provide logistical and financial support to this faction: The Club for Growth and Freedom Works, the creation of former House GOP leader Dick Armey and others. Their goals are similar: low taxes, Social Security private accounts, free trade, and reduced government spending. The Club for Growth, whose Political Action Committee gets much of its funding from the financial world, would eliminate taxes on capital (an interesting view for a populist movement) and replace the current income tax with a flat tax. Deficit reduction, however, is of little interest to either organization.

It is the same with many tea party candidates. Pennsylvania GOP Senate nominee Pat Toomey opposes what he calls a “dangerous spending spree” in Washington and favors lower taxes on both income and capital. Reducing the deficit, however, gets barely a mention on his Website. Toomey, who once served as president of the Club for Growth, does remind voters, however, that he “never voted for a tax increase.”

Sharron Angle, a tea partier likely to win today’s GOP nomination to challenge Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid for his Nevada Senate seat, holds similar views. Angle says she’d abolish the Internal Revenue Code but doesn’t quite say how she’d finance government. While she’d repeal Obama’s health reform, including its insurance subsidies for people under 65, she’d protect current retirees from cuts in Medicare and praises the government-run insurance program for veterans and their families.

Her ambivalence on health care mirrors that of many rank-and-file tea party supporters. One-third are 65 and older and many would exempt Medicare from their vision of smaller government. This view makes deficit reduction a challenge at best, especially when paired with big tax cuts.

Rand Paul, the tea partier who won the GOP Senate nomination in Kentucky, is a rare candidate who seems to give equal weight to balancing the budget and cutting taxes.

But for the most part, these candidates and their tea party backers have been quite clear. Deficit reduction, as opposed to tax cuts, is far down their Hit Parade. To borrow a phrase, I knew Ross Perot and these people are no Ross Perot.

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