Will US politics be transformed by the Tea Party movement, which thrashed President Obama`s Democrats in US mid-term Congressional elections just before his India visit? Absolutely not. The radical posturing of Tea Party stalwarts is mostly hypocritical mush.
The movement started with spontaneous grassroots protests by local people across the country, protesting against higher taxes to fund ballooning fiscal deficits. This was not led or even anticipated by any politician, though many (notably Sarah Palin) climbed onto the bandwagon once the movement spread like wildfire. Many activists donned 18th century costumes in memory of the Boston Tea Party of 1773, a tax revolt against British taxation of tea.
The Tea Party movement feeds on voter frustrations after three years of recession and slow recovery, unemployment at 9.6%, and a fear that the good old days are gone forever. Voters feel they have been lied to by both Democrats and Republicans, who have sold out to powerful lobbies like Wall Street.
Many different sorts of people attend Tea Party protests, so the movement defies exact definition. It is mainly white, over 45 years old, well educated, and of the upper income class. It includes cerebral libertarians but also very different sections (including some racists, Christian fundamentalists and anti-immigration rednecks).
The movement has three main messages. Stop expansion of government spending. Stop imposing higher taxes. And stop rising budget deficits that will overwhelm future generations with enormous debt.
Tea Partyers sneer at economists like Paul Krugman, who want even larger government spending and larger budget deficits to stimulate growth, and higher taxes to ultimately reduce those deficits. In the three years since the sub-prime crisis of 2007, the stimulus programmes of Bush and Obama seemed to have saved Wall Street but not the denizens of Main Street.
Public anger is so widespread that unknown Tea Party candidates in the Republican primaries upended many Republican stalwarts. The public mood forced even Democrats to shift to the right.
Many who disagree with the three-point Tea Party programme concede that it represents a clear new vision. You might think radical change is round the corner. Think again.
Politicians remember the mid-term Congressional elections of 1994. Republicans swearing by a right-wing “contract with America” swamped Clinton. When the Republicans tried to push this contract into practice, the public turned against them. Sure, the public disliked Democratic liberalism, but it also rejected drastic right-wing surgery. Two years later, Clinton won the presidential election handsomely.
Public moods are fickle. US public opinion tends to be hypocritical, wanting smaller government but bigger government benefits at the same time. Unsurprisingly, several Tea Party candidates are echoing this hypocrisy.
Many pretend they can slash government spending by cutting waste. None acknowledges that the real problem lies in three huge programmes— Medicaid (for the poor), Social Security and Medicare (for retirees). These threaten to expand from 8% of GDP today to 20% within the next two to three decades, swallowing up the entire federal revenue.
Polls of Tea Party supporters show that they are two-faced: they favour less government, yet don`t want any cuts in their own Social Security or Medicare entitlements. They oppose Obama`s expansion of healthcare, yet want more Medicare benefits themselves!
So, the Tea Party movement is at root hypocritical. Politicians riding the Tea Party bandwagon are no less hypocritical. They twist and turn but will not specify how exactly they will slash Social Security and Medicare – that could mean political death.
Columnist Shikha Dalmia has exposed the hypocrisy of Kentucky`s Rand Paul, one of the most cerebral Tea Partyers. “A doctor himself, he denounced Medicare as socialized medicine. Yet he has balked at the idea of cutting physician salaries, even though American physicians make twice as much as doctors in OECD countries. Why? Because their cartel, the American Medical Association, both restricts the supply of physicians through insanely restrictive licensure requirements and controls the Medicare board that determines physician compensation, as the “Wall Street Journal” reported this week. Yet, Paul now maintains “physicians should be allowed to make a comfortable living.” (But he is just being fair — not pleading for his special interest of course!) Likewise, after calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme, Paul is now talking less about reforming it and more about protecting it for those now reaching retirement age”.
So, let nobody think that the Tea Party will lead US politics into new territory. Its hypocrisy will become apparent over the next two years, and its supposed radicalism will disappear in an ooze of compromises and fudges. That will help lay the ground for an Obama victory in the next presidential election in 2012.