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10.20.10

America's Tea Party Fraud

The British just showed how real conservatives behave—with the biggest cuts in government spending since World War II. Peter Beinart on how pathetic U.S. Republicans look by comparison.

This fall, a group of kamikaze conservatives, terrified by mounting debt, outraged by excessive government spending, and unafraid of hard truths, are rallying to save their children and grandchildren from a future mortgaged to the central bank of China. Too bad they live in England.

I have my philosophical differences with British Prime Minister David Cameron, but give him this: He is what he says is, a man who hates debt. His new budget, unveiled this week, cuts government spending by a whopping $130 billion over the next five years. He’s proposed brutal cuts in pensions, welfare, and government employment. And more remarkably, for a conservative, he also wants to cut the defense budget by 8 percent and raise both value-added and capital gains taxes. To cut the deficit, he’s transgressing the ideological taboos of both left and right. He’s even slashed funding for the upkeep of the palaces of the queen.

The contrast with our supposed deficit-haters in the GOP could not be starker. Cameron started attacking his country’s budget problem within weeks of taking office. Republicans held the White House for eight years and did exactly the opposite. Tea Party types are quick to say it’s not just Barack Obama’s deficit spending that bothers them; they were outraged, outraged by the Bush deficits too. Really? Where were the folks with flags, muskets, and mutton-chops when Bush masked the cost of the Iraq and Afghan wars, year after year, by funding them through supplemental appropriations that fell outside the normal Pentagon budget? Where was Rush Limbaugh when a Bush appointee threatened to fire Medicare’s chief actuary if he disclosed the true cost of Bush’s prescription drug plan, which according to the Congressional Budget Office costs more over 10 years than Obama’s bailouts, economic stimulus, and health-care reform combined? Where were the tears for America’s debt-saddled grandchildren when Bush pushed through tax cut after tax cut without any corresponding spending cuts? Oh yes, I remember where the Republican base was in 2004, when the prescription drug bill passed and the wartime spigot was going full blast—they were reelecting Bush with the largest grassroots conservative turnout in American history.

But that, today’s Republicans explain, is the past. Today’s tea-infused conservatives are a fearless new bred. OK, so which spending programs do they want to cut? They almost never say. As even Ross Douthat recently acknowledged, the GOP’s much-touted “Pledge to America” turns to mush on the subject of spending cuts. On the campaign trail, when pressed for examples of government overspending, Republican candidates generally cite the Wall Street bailouts and Obama’s health-care plan. The only problem is that the government seems set to make a profit on the former and the latter, according to the Congressional Budget Office, saves money over the next 10 years. Repealing it, as David Herszenhorn noted in The New York Times, would increase the deficit by $100 billion between now and 2020.

A few Republicans, like Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, do talk about cutting popular spending on entitlements like Medicare and Social Security, something most GOPers assiduously avoid because it would be bad for their electoral health. But virtually none, outside that strange tribe known as the Paul family, will even contemplate cutting defense spending, even though it has risen far faster than domestic non-discretionary spending since 9/11. And virtually all Republicans want to extend the Bush tax cuts, even for Mark Zuckerberg, although doing so will drain the federal coffers by $4 trillion. If Republicans want to support massive tax cuts and increased defense spending, both of which will drive America deeper into the red, that’s their choice. But can they please spare us the self-righteous claptrap about how they lie awake at night tormented because we don’t have a balanced budget?

If Republicans want to support massive tax cuts and increased defense spending, that’s their choice. But can they please spare us the self-righteous claptrap?

Here’s a suggestion. Why don’t Dick Armey, Sarah Palin, and Glenn Beck invite David Cameron over for a trans-Atlantic visit? They can take him out to Boston Harbor and he can teach them how to dump tea.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.