Monitor breakfast: Tea Party activists Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe talk next steps

After the campaigning, the governing. But will legislating split apart the Tea Party? Followers disagree on social issues such as abortion, admit Armey and Kibbe. But Tea Party enthusiasts unite on this: The government spends way too much.

Michael Bonfigli/Special to The Christian Science Monitor/File
Tea Party activists Matt Kibbe (l.) and Dick Armey (r.) at a Monitor breakfast with reporters Sept. 13. The two lead a group called FreedomWorks that supports lower taxes and smaller government.

Can the Tea Party movement’s self-proclaimed “beautiful chaos” generate enough order to actually legislate?

Because that’s what happens next. If enough candidates supported by the Tea Party win seats in Congress, then it’s time to spin rhetoric into action. As leading Tea Partiers Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe told reporters at a Monitor breakfast this morning, legislating must be the next step in the growth of the movement.

Let’s say that Tea Party candidates get a big enough “cadre,” as Mr. Armey put it, to influence Republicans in Congress. Will they find the unity to effect change? Or will putting pen to paper require so much specificity that this loose movement dissipates, floating to the outer regions of the political cosmos like so many grassroots movements of the past?

Both men, who lead a small-government advocacy group called FreedomWorks, admit to great diversity of opinion – if not of race or age – among Tea Party followers. Armey listed a variety of enthusiasts: evangelicals, independents, libertarians, Democrats, Republicans.

They don’t agree on social issues such as abortion or prayer in schools. They don’t agree on foreign policy. “We have all sorts of spirited arguments,” says Armey.

They do unite, however, on this key fiscal issue: Federal government shouldn’t spend money that it doesn’t have. And, it should be small.

Even here, though, Armey, who was the Republican House majority leader from 1995-2003, is a realist. Here's his comment on would-be Republican speaker of the House John Boehner's hint that he might allow tax cuts for the wealthy to expire if he saw no other choice: “One of the first things in politics is to do what is doable.”

Neither did Armey hold out great hope for repealing “Obamacare” – a key demand of Tea Partiers – as long as President Obama holds veto power in the Oval Office. Instead, he said, conservatives would have to fight for things like tort-reform to hold down medical costs.

It’s not that social issues won’t come up, Armey said. It’s just that they aren’t the priority at the moment.

It seems then, that the best hope for the Tea Party’s longevity is the longevity of American debt. That problem won’t be solved anytime soon.

But the details of how to reduce deficits and debt could also be as divisive as abortion. Armey says that the best that a Rebublican-led House might be able to do under Obama is to "stop the bleeding" by going back to pre-stimulus spending. That may not satisfy Tea Party supporters. When asked if there's a painless way to tackle debt, he suggested making Social Security and Medicare voluntary. I can hear the howls of protest already, including from Tea Party followers themselves.

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