Is the Tea Party Winning?

by on February 22, 2011 · 5 comments

in American Empire, Civil Rights

E.J. Dionne, Jr.

By E.J. Dionne, Jr. / / Feb 21, 2011

Take five steps back and consider the nature of the political conversation in our nation’s capital. You would never know that it’s taking place at a moment when unemployment is still at 9 percent, when wages for so many people are stagnating at best, and when the United States faces unprecedented challenges to its economic dominance.

No, we are acting here as if the only real problem the United States confronts is the budget deficit, the only test of leadership is whether a president is willing to make big cuts in programs that protect the elderly, and the largest threat to our prosperity comes from publicemployees.

Take another five steps back and you realize how successful the tea party has been. No matter how much liberals may poke fun at them, tea party partisans can claim victory in fundamentally altering the country’s dialogue.

Consider all the things Washington and the media are mostly ignoring. You haven’t heard much lately on how Wall Street shenanigans tanked the economy in the first place—and in the process made a small number of people very rich. Yet any discussion of the problems caused by concentrated wealth (a vital mainstream issue in the America of Andrew Jackson and both Roosevelts) is confined to the academic or left-wing sidelines.

You haven’t seen a lot of news stories describing the impact of long-term unemployment on people’s lives or the difficulty working-class kids are encountering if they want to go to college.

You hear a lot about how much the government spends on the elderly, but not much about facts such as this one, courtesy of a report last fall from the Employee Benefit Research Institute: People over 75 “were more likely than other age groups—including children under 18—to live on incomes equal to or less than 200 percent of poverty.”

Any analysis of the economic struggles many elderly people endure would get in the way of the “greedy geezer” storyline being spun to justify big cuts in Medicare benefits and Social Security.

Thanks to the tea party, we are now told that all our problems will be solved by cutting government programs. Thus the House Republicans foresee nirvana if we simply reduce our spending on Head Start, Pell grants for college access, teen pregnancy prevention, clean-water programs, K-12 education and a host of other areas.

Does anyone really think that cutting such programs will create jobs or help Americans get ahead? But give the tea party guys credit: They have seized the political and media agenda and made budget cutting as fashionable as Justin Bieber was five minutes ago.

More striking is the tea party’s influence on Washington’s political elite, which looks down its nose at the more extreme men and women of the right when they appear on Fox News but ends up carrying their water.

Last week, Lori Montgomery reported in The Washington Post that a bipartisan group of senators think a sensible deficit reduction package would involve raising the Social Security retirement age to 69 and reforming taxes, purportedly to raise revenue, in a way that would cut the top income tax rate for the wealthy from 35 percent to 29 percent.

Tea party rally in San Diego, August 2010.

Only a body dominated by millionaires could define “shared sacrifice” as telling nurses’ aides and coal miners they have to work until age 69 while sharply cutting tax rates on wealthy people. I see why conservative Republicans like this. I honestly don’t get why Democrats—“the party of the people,” I’ve heard—would come near such an idea.

The media are full of commentary on President Obama’s “failure of leadership.” There is some truth to the critique but not in the way the charge is typically made.

Obama is not at fault for his budget proposals. But any fair examination of the news suggests that he is in danger of losing control of the national narrative again, just as he did during the stimulus and health care battles.

In his State of the Union address, Obama made a good case that budget cutting is too small an agenda and that this is also a time for more government—yes, more government—in areas that would expand opportunities and strengthen the economy. That argument has been entirely drowned out. If politics is reduced to a crabbed and crabby accountants’ war, Obama loses. The country will too.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Goatskull February 22, 2011 at 9:22 am

And the thing that is funniest about all of this? Most of these people are not rich themselves and many are not very well educated either. They are really just shooting themselves in the foot and in the process making others suffer. They are so convinced they will never be victims but at least for some there WILL be poetic justice. The term “careful what you wish for” comes to mind. Unfortunately that very poetic justice will be of little comfort to those who are being kicked to the curb.


tj February 23, 2011 at 8:48 am

Like many – we had high hopes for President Obama. Unfortunatly his promises (apparently campaign retoric – just like the rest) contributed to those hopes. And with over half his term behind him – what direction are we headed in? I know he faces a mountain – but regressing to the same “Wall Street approved Clintonites” who created the mess in the first place – & after his stressing & promising “Change” – was a recipe doomed to fail. Like Carter, HW, Slick Willie (father of our current economy) & W found out with their Wall Street “approved” cabinet & advisors – you can’t get Chicken soup … from Chicken droppings.


Frank Gormlie February 23, 2011 at 8:54 am

tj, unsure why you are blaming who you call “Slick Willie” for today’s economy. He left GWB a huge surplus, which W blew in tax cuts and two wars. Whaa…?


doug porter February 23, 2011 at 9:42 am

tj you are right in the sense that we face a systemic crisis that both dems and gopers have contributed to. what we have is a class problem, and both political parties ultimately represent wealthy interests. it’s wrong to pin our hopes on the dems solving this problem; it’s also wrong to give them more than 50% of the credit.
ultimately, the voices and the pressure of the people who are getting screwed the most here is the route to some short term patches. historically speaking, the more noise we make the more we’ll get. this won’t solve the systemic problem–our government and political system exists to protect the commercial interests in this country and has since day one. this is no excuse to sit back and point fingers.


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