During the Obama era, Republicans campaigned on promises to restrain federal spending and repeal Obamacare. Having gained total control of Washington, they have chosen to repeal the Tea Party instead.
The Tea Party meant a lot of things to a lot of different people, but for many limited government conservatives, the movement’s energy brought a new hope of counteracting the inertia that has traditionally led both parties to expand the size and scope of government.
The initial zeal for cutting government in the Reagan Revolution of 1980 and the Gingrich Revolution of 1994 faded over time. But starting in 2010, as underdog candidates toppled established Republicans and virtual unknowns unseated incumbents, the Tea Party seemed like it was something different.
The renewed fervor for shrinking government combined with the ability of activists to mobilize and harness new technologies meant, for the first time, many Republican politicians were feeling more heat for rubber-stamping spending increases than they were when opposing it. This led to high-profile confrontations between congressional Republicans and former President Barack Obama that largely stymied his legislative agenda for the last six years of his presidency, while failing to unravel the sweeping laws he signed in his first two.
Despite many setbacks, the Tea Party had one tangible achievement to show for all of the havoc it caused: the enactment of spending caps that resulted from the 2011 standoff over raising the debt ceiling.
In 2017, for the first time in the post-Tea Party era, Republicans finally gained unified control of government. They spent months blundering on healthcare, and ultimately reneged on their eight-year promise to repeal Obamacare. They have now agreed on a deal with Democrats that would blow up the spending caps that were a legacy of the Tea Party movement — to the tune of $300 billion over the next two years.
During the Obama era, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., rose to stardom on the basis of his sweeping plan to overhaul entitlements, urgently warning in speeches and hearings, with charts and on videos, about the looming debt crisis, which he called, “the most predictable crisis we’ve ever had in this country." He spoke of the need for bold leadership, of tackling the tough problems rather than kicking the can down the road. But the outline of the bipartisan budget deal he is now pushing would return to business as usual, in which both parties agree to give the other side more money to spend on their priorities.
The agreement would boost military spending by $165 billion above the 2011 caps and nonmilitary spending by $131 billion; it boosts emergency disaster relief spending by $90 billion (remember when the Tea Party Republicans believed emergency spending needed to be offset?); provides $6 billion in more money to fight opioid addiction; has $20 billion in infrastructure funding; it provides more funding for community health centers; and it repeals the Independent Payment Advisory Board, one of Obamacare’s cost-containment initiatives, without any significant alternative ideas to curb Medicare spending.
Now, let’s get one thing clear. It's possible to rein in long-term debt while keeping taxes relatively low and military spending relatively high, but only if those policies are met with a dramatic strategy to restrain entitlements and other nondefense spending. But that’s not what Republicans are doing.
During the Obama administration, Republicans were willing to cut defense spending to extract other spending cuts from Democrats without having to agree to raising taxes. During the Trump administration, they are pursuing an all of the above strategy by cutting taxes and then agreeing to boost spending on social programs in exchange for being able to boost defense spending.
“When the Democrats are in power, Republicans appear to be the conservative party. But when Republicans are in power, it seems there is no conservative party,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., one of the early Tea Party senators, observed in a Thursday night senate floor talkathon against the spending deal. “The hypocrisy hangs in the air and chokes anyone with a sense of decency or intellectual honesty.”
When Republicans are in opposition, they have every political reason to obstruct a Democratic president’s agenda. Democrats, if given power, want to raise taxes and reduce military spending to pay for expanded social programs — the opposite of what Republicans’ preferences are. Furthermore, there is a benefit to denying an opposition party’s president any victories, because it makes that president look weak and incapable of getting anything accomplished. Conveniently, these goals are perfectly consistent with the goals of those who want to limit the growth of government, so it allows Republicans to cloak their more cynical motives in lofty limited government rhetoric.
When Republicans, given power, are consistently growing government and adding to the debt, it’s time to stop saying they’re abandoning limited government principles. The reality is, they do not actually have any limited government principles. Their priorities are lower taxes and higher military spending, and they are willing to accede to growth in entitlements and other government programs if that is what it takes to secure their first two goals. This is shortsighted, of course, because their failure to grapple with reality inevitably means the nation will one day face both higher taxes and severe military cuts. If the Tea Party, for all the disruption it caused, couldn’t change this dynamic, nothing ever will.
The next time Republicans seeking office start yammering about the need to restrain government and curb deficits, we should remember the adage of the last Republican president to cut taxes, increase military spending, and expand entitlements: “Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again.”