It’s the Spending, Stupid – Sep. 20, 2010

“I’m for the most conservative candidate running – who can win.”  William F. Buckley’s famous aphorism has been in the air a lot in the past week, as people have been trying to figure out what to make of Christine O’Donnell.

Conservative voices I respect tremendously, such as Karl Rove, Charles Krauthammer, and Michael Medved, have taken turns criticizing her nomination as a mistake for the Republican Party.  Mike Castle, her defeated opponent in the primary, had a 40-year career in public service for Delaware, including two terms as Governor, and would have been a 90-10 favorite in the general election.  O’Donnell, on the other hand, has a scattershot history, has been given to downright goofy statements, and has shown a somewhat passing acquaintance with fiscal rectitude in her own affairs.  Republicans had a chance to win control of the Senate, it is said, and with O’Donnell’s nomination that easy win has now probably fallen into the Democratic column, or at least leaning that way.  Without Delaware, the GOP needs to run the table of the remaining seats in play to win 51.  Dumb, dumb, dumb, and evidence that the Republican Party has been taken over by the wackos.
Maybe.  But don’t forget that six weeks before he became a US Senator, Scott Brown was a minor league state rep who had posed nude in Cosmo.  O’Donnell was the GOP’s candidate in the 2006 election (presumably, they vetted her fully for that contest – the fact that they unleashed all this crap against her in the 2010 primary perhaps tells you more about Delaware Republicans than it does about O’Donnell), and she pulled 35% of the vote against Joe Biden, an incumbent with tenure.  So give her a 5% boost because Biden’s not her opponent.  She is running in a year that promises to be hell for Democrats – perhaps that’s worth another 5%.  And within 36 hours of her nomination, she had received nearly a million dollars in online donations.  Perhaps it’s a bit more competitive than the experts think.  (Credit where it’s due – much of this analysis came from a Delaware observer sent into Best of the Web Today, a great blog for political observations and mordant wit.)
And in a way, whether she is elected and helps the Republicans regain the Senate is beside the point.  O’Donnell and the rest of the Tea Party insurgents are not about painting Congress red again.  They are about putting an end to business as usual in Washington, and that’s why there has been so much intramural blood letting on the way to this point.  For while the GOP is the logical home for people of the Tea Party persuasion, that doesn’t make them a subsidiary of the party, in the way that Big Labor is joined at the hip to the Democratic Party.
The movement is a shambling, unorganized, leaderless collection of activists and interested parties connected by ideas and the Internet.  But as they have taken on a political life over the course of the last eighteen months, they have coalesced around one large idea: government has grown too big, spends too much, and if they don’t change course radically will tax or inflate away our future.
While Republicans have traditionally been the party of fiscal responsibility, they have not always been so, particularly in the last several years.  That is why the Tea Party folks have been mounting challenges to traditional Republican insiders like Mike Castle or Lisa Murkowski.  That they have been winning the bulk of these matchups tells you much about the state of play in the party and in the country.
In a way, the Tea Party is the flowering of a strain of anti-establishment conservatism that dates at least back to Reagan – “government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem.”  It blossomed again with the candidacy of Ross Perot, whose homespun fiscal conservatism touched a nerve with people disappointed with Bush Sr’s failure to keep the Reagan fires burning.  And again, with the Contract for America.  I think fiscal conservatives were very disappointed with Bush Jr, under whom spending ballooned in many directions.  Although in  later years his White House did clamp down on non-defense spending, he never once wielded his veto pen – and the fact that much of the orgy of spending came about while the GOP held Congress was a real reason they lost control in 2006 and were trounced in 2008 – the pre-Tea Party folks abandoned the Republicans and left the field for the Democrats.
Through it all, spending just continued to mount.  Nobody seemed able to do any more than slow its growth.  It is one of the great weaknesses of a democracy that lawmakers can draw upon a vast pool of tax revenue and use it to please constituents back home, thereby ensuring their re-election and the perpetuation of the system.  Witness the late Robert F. Byrd, who had so many buildings, roads, facilities, and the like named after him; it is a true testament to his ability to take money from taxpayers in other states and divert it to West Virginia.
The fact that he was proud of it, and campaigned on it, instead of being at least somewhat abashed by the indiscriminate profligacy of it, is symptomatic of the culture that so offends the Tea Party.  There is literally no end to the worthy supplicants and causes that make the pilgrimage to Washington to appeal for taxpayer funding for this or that project.  So unless one is in the habit of saying no before reading the application, the default course is to dole out some more money.  Everybody is well-served: the petitioner gets some money, the legislator pleases a constituent, and has another accomplishment to tout come election time.  The only one who is shafted – in every single such transaction – is the taxpayer, who is not at the table.
Then came the Obama Revolution, in which the crisis needs of an economy on its back meshed with his vision of a more redistributionist, interventionist government.  So the Great Spending Binge began, first with the bank bailouts, the auto bailouts, AIG and all that; only to be followed by the $787 (now $862) billion stimulus program, the delayed 2010 budget that ballooned spending by 6% on top of that; health care, a trillion dollar upending of the health industry; not to mention sundry further stimulus bills which, because they are only $100 to $300 billion, barely make mention.
With spending on steroids, Gulliver woke up.  From Rick Santelli’s rant to the town hall shout-fests to the March demonstrations against Obamacare to the primaries, with several elections thrown in along the way, the outrage of the plain folks at their heedless, arrogant government grew.  Everybody outside the Beltway knows that when money is tight you make hard choices between the nice-to-haves and the got-to-haves, and after you make the cuts, then you make the cuts again.  Washington seems to be doing the reverse, and mortgaging the future at the same time.
There is more to this.  With more and more spending, the only way to restore budgetary balance is more taxes or inflation.  Either one will impoverish our children and grandchildren.  Not only that, but more government spending means more government control – they don’t just pour money into people’s pockets.  The money goes to people or entities that meet government-established criteria.  If you produce the right kind of service or product (say, solar panels), or if you earn your money in the right way (say, paycheck rather than ownership), etc, etc you get the money; others don’t.  With government money comes government control and less freedom.
There is another part of the great sucking maw of big government.  Centralized power attracts further power like a magnet attracts iron filings.  The Framers knew this, which is why they were meticulous about designating which powers belonged to the Federal government – and the Constitution says literally that all other powers (not itemized, not ring-fenced, not otherwise defined, but all other powers) belong either to the states or to the people.  Gradually, that careful construct has been eroded by the natural gravity of power centralization, abetted by a compliant Supreme Court which has seen in the boundaries of the Commerce Clause a reason to deem everything a Federal responsibility.
All of this lies behind the extraordinary energy that is building up toward November.  And the fascinating thing is that these attitudes are not solely to be found among the tobacco-drooling yahoos of flyover country, or even in the traditional Republican redoubts.  A poll of independents reported on today by Doug Schoen in the Wall Street Journal points out that these attitudes are resonating strongly among them too – 48% of whom are “sympathetic to or supporters of” the Tea Party.  And what they want is classic Tea Party stuff: shrink government; reduce spending and taxes; change the insider’s game in Washington; do away with Obamacare; reduce the Federal debt.
These voters do not naturally trust the Republicans to answer this call, but they are damned sure the Democrats won’t.  That’s why Republicans with tenure are finding their careers threatened if not ended, and why outsiders who promise to tip over the apple cart are winning nominations.  And with independents drinking from the same teacup, as it were, it doesn’t really matter if Delaware’s Senate seat remains Democratic.
The new wave of progressive dominance that was supposedly ushered in with Barack Obama lasted less than two years.
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