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Tea Party Politics & Economics: Brews Too Bitter to Swallow

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Tea Party members are angry -- we get that. Every American facing prolonged unemployment, stagnant wages or economic insecurity at this time has a right to be angry. I'm angry too, although not so blindingly angry to ever think that Tea Party leaders like Glenn Beck or Jim DeMint are anything but manipulative, self-interested demagogues.

But now that the Tea Party has moved from the fringe straight into the heart of the Republican Party, and now that many so-called Tea Party candidates have captured Republican nominations -- and have serious chances at winning House and Senate seats -- it's time we went behind the early-on justified anger and look at what these candidates would actually do if they take office.

The day-to-day politics today behind much of the Tea Party's rhetoric are a sorry potpourri of anti-government, anti-civil rights, and anti-Social Security and anti-Medicare sentiments, the likes of which we've never seen before in America. And the expression of these sentiments ranges from enthusiastic to belligerent to fanatical, depending upon the speaker.

It's the major economic espousals, however, of the Tea Party's leaders and proselytizers about which I mostly wish to comment, since if ever they come to be widely embraced, our economy as we know it will collapse in a heap of unfairness and imbalance. A heap so un-American that the Tea Partiers themselves will be wondering aloud, "What have we done?"

The economic 'platform' of the Tea Party candidates can largely be boiled down to the following premises:

  1. Near-term job creation on a large scale and long-term deficit cutting are mutually exclusive;
  2. Even with unprecedented individual income inequality in the nation today, the principles of progressive taxation can be further gutted and in some aspects even abandoned without destroying the fabric of our society and culture; and
  3. U.S. multinational corporations can continue on their current pathway of offshoring American jobs and hiding large amounts of their taxable income overseas without further damaging our economy, increasing our trade deficit and diminishing the vitality of our workforce and the middle class.

Let's examine, in order, the realities of these premises.

First, with this year's federal deficit now estimated to total $1.47 trillion, a vast majority of Tea Party members -- as well as a majority of all voters -- agree with the comment made by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) during the recent unemployment benefits extension debate that "the federal debt has grown to an alarming level, where it is threatening the future of our children and grandchildren". But voters by a wide margin strongly disagree when this perspective is then used to resist major new job creation efforts. By two-to-one, they clearly favor jobs initiatives over immediate deficit reduction.

In the medium term, because of their 'multiplier effect', well-conceived job efforts are at least deficit neutral and, most likely, they are substantially deficit reducing -- and they are always a more responsible and effective way to reduce the long-term deficit than is slashing spending simply for slashing's sake. This November 2, voters absolutely do not have to choose between stimulus and austerity, as many Tea Party candidates are demanding -- they just have to get each challenge's priority and timing right.

Second, as for advancing individual tax policies that largely benefit only extremely wealthy individuals, this really is the most perverse of the Tea Party's three economic principles, since it contradicts the fundamental "fairness to the middle class" premise on which our nation (and the Tea Party) was founded.

With more income inequality than ever, with the wages of 90% of America's workers stagnant for the past twenty years, and with real unemployment of nearly 20%, Tea Party leaders and candidates for Congress nonetheless seem content to preserve and even extend the income tax principles and policies that, since 1980, have been manipulated literally out of control, all with the intent of enriching the wealthiest of Americans so that hypothetically they can 'trickle down' their extreme wealth to the poorest -- which of course never happens.

Finally, there is the inexplicable commitment of the leaders of the Tea Party to economic, corporate income tax and trade policies that can only serve to make large multinational corporations even more profitable, further mushroom our trade deficit, and see millions more high-quality American jobs offshored to countries like China and India. With less than 11% of American workers actually 'making things' when our manufacturing sector needs to be more than twice as large, how in the world could the members of the Tea Party, who are hard working Americans all, let themselves be sold this particular bill of goods by their leaders and their 'allies' at the likes of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable? Populist movements that are originally well-intentioned are often hijacked by "wolves in sheep's clothing", but this particular result is ridiculous.

If these planks in the Tea Party's economic platform become policy realities, they would further devastate our country and our middle class. So it's time for the Democratic Party to stop with the handwringing and grab hold of this election.

Midterm elections are all about "enthusiasm" -- that's what drives voters to the polls. The Tea Party has had some success in this year's primaries because it has energized economically disgruntled voters and gives them reasons to vote. Non-Tea Party Republicans are energized every day it seems by their hatred of Democrats. Now the Democrats need to vigorously put forward their own enthusiasm -- and their own heartfelt beliefs -- into this election, or for some of them it will be lost. And elections -- but especially this one -- do have consequences.

So, what should Democratic candidates for Congress do who want the support of responsible and fair-minded Tea Party members? How in the process, as the pollster Stan Greenberg has advanced, can Democrats frame this election as a clear choice and battle for the middle class?

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a once-Republican and now an Obama supporter, provided one answer when he said just the other day that President Obama and Congress must focus "like a razor blade" on employment, giving the same level of attention to creating jobs as they did to passing bills overhauling health and reforming education. Let me embellish this advice by offering some further tactics more targeted at the incompatibility of the Tea Party's three major economic planks with sustained balanced and fair economic growth:

  • Using fear tactics, the Republican Party will inevitably enact an extremist economic agenda if they seize control of Congress. Not only Democrats but also Independents, especially Independent women, express significant antipathy toward this agenda and the Tea Party that espouses it. To energize our own base and these Independents, we need to engage them forcefully with reminders of this pernicious agenda.
  • As Greenberg has pointed out, most of the Tea Party and Republican Congressional candidates are supporters of "the big financial interests dominating Washington." These candidates need to be called out for this and for their associated anti-middle class, recession-inducing, extremist economic views.
  • Many of the so-called "surge voters" - African Americans, Latinos, blue collar males with high school diplomas, and college students - who helped propel Barack Obama into the White House in 2008, have, in the intervening two years, faced much higher unemployment rates than other Americans. Democratic candidates need to reach out to and help them.
  • Independents comprise a quarter or so of total voters, and many of them are strongly sympathetic to the original middle class agenda of the Tea Party. Yet right now, according to the latest ABC/Washington Post poll, only 35% of Independents who say they are likely voters, approve of the job the President is doing. If Democratic Congressional candidates should lose Independent voters by, say, 20 or 25 points, turning out Democratic base voters won't be enough to stem this tide. Democratic candidates need to engage Independents as never before.

The first contrast that should be drawn for all voters is between, on the one hand, the economic stimulus efforts and associated programs from the Democrats which could create the millions of jobs we are missing and, on the other, the realities that Republicans in Congress consistently vote almost en masse against stimulus, repeatedly voted as a block against extending unemployment benefits, and openly describe the jobless as "lazy", "drug users" and "hobos."

Next, Democratic candidates need to convince voters, as Franklin Roosevelt did in 1932, that they're the ones who understand that the domestic economy is the nation's highest priority, that they have more specific proposals in mind to quickly close the 'Jobs Gap' and bring the nation back at full employment, that they won't rest until their proposals are enacted, and that they are best able to strike a responsible balance between aggressive near-term jobs initiatives and long-term deficit reduction.

There is an astounding disconnect today between the goals of the Republican leadership in Congress and the honest grass roots employment and fair compensation concerns which evolved into the Tea Party's founding goals. In that disconnect is very fertile ground for Democrats to plow. Democrats should make clear to Independents and to jobs-concerned Tea Party members alike that Republican policies, which invariably favor Wall Street and large multinational corporations and not Main Street, are anathema and not in their interests.

Do voters really want to see Joe Barton (R-TX), who said that we need to apologize to BP over the Gulf oil spill, as House Energy Chairman, or John Boehner (R-OH), who has consistently downplayed the economic problems facing middle class Americans, as Speaker of the House?

Leo Hindery, Jr. is Chairman of the US Economy/Smart Globalization Initiative at the New America Foundation and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Currently an investor in media companies, he is the former CEO of Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI), Liberty Media and their successor AT&T Broadband. He also serves on the Board of the Huffington Post Investigative Fund.

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