These last few weeks during Washington's epic squabble over the country's debt ceiling.
What started out as just another hike in our country's borrowing capacity suddenly turned into an ideological war over how money gets spent in Washington. To the extent that today's compromise, hashed out between the White House and partisan leaders, actually represents a fiduciary accomplishment, our country has been saved - however briefly - from insolvency. And that's a relief - or, more accurately, a reprieve.
But not much of either.
Tea Partiers have been howling "foul" ever since this debate began, and although I don't subscribe to their tactics, I have to admit that in substance, they're more correct than even traditional Republicans want to admit. Big changes to the way government is done - and paid for - still need to be made.
Lesson 1: Pick Your Fights Wisely
However, this was not the fight to pick with the expectation of solving America's problems. After all, Washington's wasteful policies have been nurtured by decades of cronyism, sleazy lobbying, partisanship, earmarks, and political patronage. This debt ceiling measure, as what would otherwise have been an innocuous - albeit damaging - formality, never provided an opportunity to construct a new framework for spending and taxing, which seemed to be the Tea Party's objective.
It could even be said that the Tea Party itself is simply another lackey in Washington's grand tradition, only this time a puppet of libertarian autocrats like the Koch brothers. If that is indeed the case, as many politicos suspect, Tea Partiers represent the same duplicity of which they accuse the two main political parties. No small wonder, then, that some traditional Republicans appear to tolerate their Tea Party brethren more than they respect them.
This means Tea Partiers need to be logical in their pursuit of meaningful change.
As I've said, I don't disagree with a lot of what Tea Partiers claim to champion: small government, lower taxes, and personal responsibility. I differ from Tea Partiers when it comes to funding our military, because the same wasteful spending so easily identifiable in programs like welfare and Medicaid can also be seen in our defense budget. It's just that since we currently have military personnel being killed in two active wars, we have to use surgical strikes on the Pentagon's budget instead of cluster bombs.
I'm also hesitant about wholesale changes to entitlements like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and welfare. Wiping out government programs won't put people to work or erase their medical bills. Yes, I'm convinced widespread fraud exists in these programs which must be weeded out. But taking away safety nets cold-turkey will only dump more impoverished people on the streets and likely increase crime. Personally, I also suspect that the reason most Tea Partiers so loathe these programs is because they don't understand all of the economics of poverty and how extreme practices of capitalism don't do the middle class any favors.
But I digress.
Lesson 2: Don't Dilute Noble Objectives with Vitriol
Where I distance myself from Tea Party rhetoric comes at the point when their noble objectives of fiscal austerity and accountability become infested with an irascible, petulant, and downright nasty mentality. The expectations of many Tea Partiers seem woefully unrealistic, and they seem surprised and easily abrasive when they find the mechanics of downsizing government don't function at warp speed.
These unrealistic expectations may be due to a poor understanding of American history and a lopsided view of political science. I'm not just criticizing American public education, of which many Tea Partiers are a product. A considerable number of neo-cons have taken to personally studying selective bits of American history and developing assumptions supporting preconceived nostalgia which tend to wither under wholistic review. History cannot be accurately perceived when viewed through the microscope of dogma. Not for liberals who want to distort the legacy of Christopher Columbus, for example, and not for self-taught conservatives who insist orthodox Christianity governed our Founding Fathers.
Indeed, for many Tea Partiers, I suspect that a threadbare Christian theology has been woven into the downy quilt with which they so desperately want to cradle their perception of America. Not just in terms of our government, but our economy, with rose-colored glasses lingering over Biblical passages condemning slothfulness yet ignoring many more passages commanding us to love our neighbors.
But I digress yet again.
Lesson 3: Revisionist History Runs Both Ways
Granted, the complexities of history and politics can make almost anybody glassy-eyed, but if conservatives really expect to be taken seriously, we're going to need to put more effort into justifying our exasperation at the status-quo in Washington.
For example, consider this brief collection of sound bites culled from a cursory review of websites sympathetic to the Tea Party movement (each is followed by my own response):
- From TheHill.com: We pay 35 percent more for our military today than we did 10 years ago, for the exact same capabilities.
Ten years ago, September 11 hadn't happened yet. And we weren't in two wars simultaneously, both started by a Republican, and both in Islamic countries where insurgencies have helped re-define modern warfare.
- From Mark Meckler, a Tea Party leader: We have compromised our way into disaster.
But aren't politics all about compromise when you've got different political parties controlling different mechanisms of the legislative process? At most, the Tea Party could claim 40% of voters in 2008, which basic math tells you does not equate to "political capital." Until Tea Partiers control the Executive and Legislative branches, compromise will be essential to getting anything changed for the better.
And this debt ceiling legislation isn't the end of the road. We won't know if this leads to disaster until our government hammers out more details on how these problems will be comprehensively addressed.
- From RedState.com: It’s times like this that I wonder “Is the GOP in cahoots with the Democrats to destroy freedom in this country and make this a police state?”
How has this admitted fiasco over the debt ceiling contributed to the destruction of freedom in the United States? When Republicans voted for George W. Bush's seven debt ceiling increases with nary a blink, how was that not destructive of our freedoms? When he crafted the Patriot Act, how did that not contribute to America becoming a police state?
- And from Glenn Beck: Isn’t it curious that when Democrats wanted to push through a $1 trillion stimulus plan that enriched every social engineering project in the country they got it done? Isn’t it amazing that Democrats had the willpower to ram through health unpopular Obamacare which changed our entire health care system without any compromise whatsoever? Why can’t Republicans find a similar backbone? Why can’t they fight for the people who elected them? Are you telling me they can’t find significant waste and fraud in the Federal government right now?
If you had bothered to pay attention in your high school civics class, Mr. Beck, you'd have learned that when one party controls the House, the Senate, and the White House, a lot of stuff can get done without compromising between parties. Democrats were in control of Washington during most of the stimulus frenzy, and for all of the Obamacare debacle.
Lesson 4: Politicians Aren't the Only Problem
If there's anything on which I can truly sympathize with Tea Partiers, it's how discouraging it can be for a republic to end up with the politicians it deserves. We usually end up voting in the people we deserve because they're the folks who most effectively play on our desires, our fallacies, and our indulgences. Very few politicians actually get to change society - don't give them that much credit! Almost all politicians reflect the people who put them in office. That means our problems don't lie so much in Washington as they do in the suburbs, farms, and cities of the United States.
We need to remember that for all these years, it hasn't been some vagabond, rogue band that's been dragging America down the gritty path of overspending, bloated government, and over-regulation. It's been a majority of Americans who've been approving, through incremental rationalizations, the festering stew of dysfunction we see today.
Kind of like killing a frog in a boiling pot of water. If you toss a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will jump out. But if you put a frog into a pot of cool water, it will stay in it, even as you slowly turn the water up to a boil.
At which point, the frog dies.
Hopefully, the bubbles we've started to see in the water means its still just simmering.