05/24/2010 09:14 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Ask Rand Paul What He Would Cut

The recent controversy over Republican senatorial nominee Rand Paul's comments and views on civil rights (and on the role of the federal government versus private business and private individuals in general), is certainly entertaining and quite possibly damaging to his candidacy (or possibly not, this is Kentucky we're talking about, after all), but at the same time it is probably not going to be the key issue that decides Kentucky voters this November. It's a pretty safe assumption that most people for whom civil rights are a top voting issue have already made up their minds not to vote for Paul anyway. But there's a much more fundamental argument to have with Tea Party candidates like Paul (and Republican candidates in general) which, so far, has been missing in the media debate. The real question that should be asked is: "What, exactly, in the federal budget will you cut to 'rein in Washington spending' and attack the deficit?" Because the answers to that are going to be the most effective argument to make against the Tea Party movement's surge within the Republican Party -- because my guess is that no matter what they answer, the voters are not going to like it.

The federal budget is in deficit. Everyone knows this. We're spending much more than we take in. But because the deficit is so high, you simply cannot tame it with a "scalpel" (the way politicians love to talk about doing). It requires more than a scalpel -- more, even, than a meat cleaver. To really balance next year's budget would require taking a metaphorical axe to a lot of federal programs that a lot of people appreciate. Economists will tell you that the only way we're really going to solve the deficit is to grow our way out of it, but this doesn't translate well into simplistic political slogans.

Last year's budget, for instance, spent $3.55 trillion while it took in $2.38 trillion, for a deficit of $1.17 trillion. But when you look into where this money was spent, you quickly see that balancing the federal government's books would require drastic cuts in both discretionary spending and entitlements. Four items -- the Pentagon, Medicare/Medicaid, Social Security, and the interest on the debt -- together add up to roughly the money the government takes in. Meaning that everything else the federal government does would have to be cut completely -- zeroed out -- in order to balance the budget. Or, cuts would have to be made in the military, which Republicans simply are not going to support, or in the three major entitlement programs (Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security), which Republicans really want to do but don't really want to talk about.

But this is why the issue should be raised. If not by the media, then by Democrats. Because it's easy to say "cut wasteful spending" or "rein in Big Government" or any of the other cute slogans you see at Republican rallies, but the devil is indeed in the details. Rand Paul, for instance, may ultimately be hurt more for his ideas on doing away with farm subsidies than for his opinions on civil rights.

This is a good example to start with, because it's a non-partisan issue -- farmers love subsidies no matter how they vote. And it's representative, too, because every federal program has a constituency which either loves it or at the very least relies upon it. This is why Republicans never want to talk about the details on cutting spending. Because they know that if they do, they're going to turn off a certain segment of the voters. Rand Paul, for instance, wants to raise the Social Security retirement age to 70. Again, this is not all that popular a position, when you actually talk to voters.

Nobody likes sacrifice and financial pain. Nobody. And federal programs, once begun, are virtually never ended (farm subsidies started in the Great Depression as an "emergency" program -- an "emergency" which has continued to this day) for this very reason -- someone's going to have to sacrifice if they are killed off. Which makes them a hard sell to voters.

The Tea Party folks, and their candidates, need to be pressed hard on how -- exactly -- they're going to attack the federal deficit. They've actually got plenty of ideas for how to do this, but because a lot of them operate inside a sort of echo chamber of like-minded opinions, they have yet to realize how unpopular these positions are going to be, if the public ever starts talking about them -- as Rand Paul demonstrated so ably on a different subject (civil rights and disabilities discrimination). The Tea Partiers (some of them) have views on government spending which are quite radical, and pretty far outside the mainstream of politics. This needs to be pointed out.

Rand Paul, like a lot of conservatives, wants to do away with entire federal departments (like the Department of Education, for one). This is going to come as quite a shock to parents who vote, when they realize their local school is going to go broke as a result, and they're going to have to pay more local taxes as a result. These radical notions of how to hack away at the federal budget need to be exposed, and quickly. Democrats got their third wake-up call on the Tea Party movement last week, because now there is a decent chance that three states (Florida, Kentucky, and Utah) are going to vote senators in who call themselves Tea Partiers. Democrats, up until now, have focused only on ridicule for the Tea Partiers, but they'd better soon realize that this battle needs to be fought on an ideological level.

Ask the Tea Party candidates exactly how they'd balance the federal budget, and just sit back and let them dig a hole. Because while it's quite popular to bandy about vague "rein in spending" slogans out on the hustings, and while it's a real crowd-pleaser to vow to "take on Washington spending" and all of that, these ideas become a lot less popular when the specifics are spelled out.

So the next interviewer who manages to get an interview with Rand Paul, or any of the other Tea Partiers, really needs to pin them down on this. And if they don't, Democrats need to press the issue hard -- what would you cut? Would you cut the Pentagon's budget? No? Well, then how about Social Security? Would you cut benefits? Raise the retirement age? Even if you managed to repeal the new health reform law, the budget's still in deficit, so what else would you repeal or cut?

Because, while it's fun to watch Rand Paul squirm on his civil rights comments, there are much more fundamental subjects on which he's going to be more politically vulnerable than he thinks. Get him to expound upon his thoughts about the Department of Education and farm subsidies, for starters, and then ask him what other federal departments he would slash funding on. Because voters, when standing in the election booth, may excuse views on something that doesn't affect them personally, but when they are thinking of pocketbook issues which directly affect their family, they will likely not be as forgiving.

The Tea Party's real weakness is how radical they would start slashing all that "Washington spending." It's one of those ideas which sounds good on paper, in a broad sense, but becomes downright scary when they flesh it out with details. So far, they've largely been able to avoid talking about those details. But pinning them down on what they would cut from the budget is going to be a lot more important politically, in my opinion, than anything Rand Paul said last week. Voters who are now contemplating giving that Tea Party fellow a vote may hastily change their mind when they realize what is included in the package that will affect them directly.

Tea Partiers and libertarians have some radical ideas, which most of them are convinced would be quite popular among the public -- meaning they may be eager to talk about them. Getting them to do so is going to be the best way to show the voters exactly how radical these folks are. The Tea Party candidates think that their economic stance is what makes them so popular, and they should be encouraged to explain these views in great detail. Because when voters hear these details, my guess is that they're going to think twice about supporting them.


[Note: For those interested, there's an excellent tool over at the New York Times site which allows you to see graphically the relative size of all federal programs in this year's budget, color-coded by whether the program got an increase in budget or shrank. You can use this to see what I mean about most of these programs having a constituency which cares deeply about them. Without taking an axe to the Pentagon, it's extremely hard to pick out what exactly Tea Partiers would cut to balance the budget, without causing an outcry among certain groups of voters.]


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