WHILE WRITING this I received an invitation to Washington. At the end of the message, this: “in case of a federal government shutdown, the event will be canceled.” All these years later, I was left thinking, could it be 1995? Only, Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America is now Ted Cruz’s Contract on America, the intervening years providing sources of irony as well as of discouragement. Mostly however discouragement, as I notice that the Continuing Resolution is a continuous thing, alright, but more like an irresolution.
You’ll recall that Mr. Gingrich’s contract, an amount of which originated at the conservative Heritage Foundation, appeared just before the 1994 mid-term as a TV Guide advertisement. Promising on day one to launch eight substantive reforms, the Contract with America was followed by a Republican-dominated congress eager for battle against Big Government. Within five years, the rancor which logically and necessarily ensued had discredited Democrat and Republican alike. Gingrich suffered particularly, as his ethics violations and prominent role in the federal shut-downs of 1995-1996 cost the Republicans three House seats. The party however maintained a congressional majority and achieved the balanced budgets of the later Clinton years, while a number of 1994’s Republican Revolutionaries and Washington outsiders settled into the warm folds of an accomodating career.
The fight then as now was over the entitlements, not of congress certainly, but of the public purse. These non-discretionary federal expenditures, whose contribution to the debt has been for decades a rallying cry of successive anti-establishment politicians, were the forever-about-to-fall sky until someone decided instead to raise the ceiling. In the meanwhile, Democrat and Republican alike have tried to solve the very real problems of a health care system whose patchwork nature combined the worst of statism with the worst of capitalism: abundant red-tape whose cutting is sometimes best achieved with the sharp edge of a limitless MasterCard.
Here again the Heritage Foundation came to the rescue. Their notion of an individual mandate – to satisfy the conservative principle of personal responsibility – was combined with government subsidies of for-profit private insurance to furnish Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney the model he would later recommended to the nation. Moreover, the model was an instance of Republican orthodoxy, the federal subsidization of the corporate profit motive being a central feature of (to cite its foremost practitioner) Ronald Reagan’s Military Keynesianism. For this reason the Massachusetts solution appealed broadly to the GOP, among them former senator and current Tea Party leader and Heritage Foundation president, Jim DeMint.
A much noted irony of the last campaign is that it fell to Romney to promise a repeal of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, now better known by the intended slur of “ObamaCare,” on day one of a Republican presidency. Whether or not he would have turned upon his once-prideful legacy in this crude manner we shall never know. Or, to use an alternative formulation of this question, would the Tea Party be so stridently against the health care reforms of today if they had arrived with the original, Republican shrink-wrap intact? In all likelihood, yes. The Tea Party’s deal with the lesser devil that was Mitt Romney was only one episode in the greater and unfinished war upon modern government, and in this war the Republican establishment must also become a casualty.
The Tea Party war on Washington recalls not only Boston’s Sons of Liberty, but the many reconstitutions of the anti-establishment liberty-or-death franchise, from the Copperheads forward. And as the terms of the enterprise make clear, some will earn their liberty while others (the most famous being John Wilkes Booth) their death. It’s too early to say when, and how, the Tea Party will have its eventual demise, if a political death it is. And it may not matter, either, the franchise itself having since 1775 survived each individual catastrophe.