10/26/2010 04:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Who's Going to Pay for the Party?

It might be a bit confusing to a casual observer. Here we are charging into the November 2nd election and it seems like most of the country is positively salivating at the chance to throw the rascals out and change the culture of Washington.

Wait a minute! Didn't we just do that? Didn't we throw out the political party in power to change the culture in Washington? Didn't we elect a new president by the largest margin in American history? Didn't Democrats promise to overhaul our healthcare system? Didn't they promise to rein in corporate greed? And now, we're throwing them out because they did exactly what they were elected to do. What in the wide world is going on here?

Well, the process isn't all that new. It's just happening a little quicker than usual. Generally, we give a new president and his party a bit longer to change things before we turn against them. But this time, almost from the first day, there's been a relentless, well-orchestrated campaign to convince people that every decision made in Washington was colossally wasteful, threatened our children and was probably based in Marxist dogma. Did it work? Unless you believe that several million people around the country woke up one day last summer spontaneously upset about the size of the federal government, it worked like a Swiss watch.

And so, we have the Tea Party movement, an ersatz political revolution made up of very unlikely revolutionaries -- they tend to be white, male, married Republicans over the age of 45, according to a New York Times/CBS News Poll. And, according to the poll, they represent about 18% of the American public. Yet, this 18% has captured the media's attention, the national dialog and terrified a lot of Republicans and Democrats.

It's fascinating to watch the reaction of the two political structures. A few opportunistic Republicans have run around to get in front of the Tea Party and act like they were leading it all along. Sarah Palin likes to speak for the Tea Party, as long as they pay her speaking fee.

Most Republicans, though, aren't sure how to act. They keep wanting to claim the new movement as a wing of their party, but the Tea Party has devoured more than a few GOP office holders and candidates, and they're not done yet. And, the Republican establishment is a tad uncomfortable with some of the Tea Party Twinkies running under its banner, so they treat the Tea Party like a rich uncle with a social disease: they want to be in the will when he dies but they don't want to get too close in the meantime.

Democrats on the other hand have achieved total synchronicity in their reaction to this 18% of the electorate. Run for your lives! Many have completely turned their backs on their own accomplishments and their own supporters. Healthcare reform? Never heard of it. Clean up Wall Street abuses? Rein in corporate greed? Not me. Prevent a global financial meltdown? You must have me confused with someone else. And the Democratic Party's message is crisp and clear: Barack who?

So we're facing the prospect of a minority coup d'etat; a Tea Party takeover. Yet nobody knows what that would look like because the Tea Party's agenda really doesn't extend much beyond getting rid of as many people in government as possible. That's the problem when the only thing revolutionaries have in common is undirected anger. Once they've kicked down the barn, what are they going to build in its place?

"Government's gotten too big. We need to cut spending!"


"That's not important. We just need to spend less!"

Problem is it's not that simple. According to the Office of Management and Budget, about 51% of the federal budget goes to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and low income children's healthcare for the states, veterans' medical benefits, disability payments and other pensions. These are entitlements and their annual cost depends on how many people qualify, so Congress doesn't set spending on them. Nine percent of the budget goes to make payments on the national debt. That leaves about a third. But the defense budget and homeland security are more than half of that, and you have to be very careful cutting them. What's left?

About 18% of the annual federal budget is discretionary non-defense spending. It pays for highways, overpasses, and airport control towers, flood prevention and drainage projects, national parks, medical research, consumer protection, pipeline and coal mine safety inspectors, U.S.D.A. meat and food inspections, clean air and clean water enforcement, flood, tornado and other disaster relief, education funding for local school districts to pay for special education and pre-school, grants programs to help local communities pay for police officers and firefighters, our federal courts, reimbursements to local hospitals that treat people with no medical insurance, crop subsidies for farmers, small business loan guarantees, new oversight of the financial industry, the FDIC, and all those other things that the federal government does and a lot of those services the public seems to like.

What's important to remember is that every single dime of this federal spending has a constituency; people who depend on it. And, a lot of those people have someone in Washington to look out for their interests. So rampaging through the federal government with a budget meat axe isn't really going to be all that popular. Ronald Reagan found that out. So did both Bushes. So did Congressional Republicans during the Clinton Administration.

If the Tea Party "wins" on November 2nd, its success in making or influencing wholesale cuts in federal spending will ultimately depend on what the other 82% of the American public is willing to give up and who's going to pay for the party.