In the last month, commentators of all sorts have written columns purporting to document the decline of the Tea Party: diminishing "favorability" ratings, decreased energy and attendance at events, a more limited impact on the national political conversation, etc.
The hundreds of Tea Party rallies scheduled for today and tomorrow will be one opportunity for the movement to rebut those claims. But even if the Tea Party "brand" has been tarnished or the kettle has lost some of its steam, the movement has already accomplished two things of lasting value: It has forced political leaders to confront our fiscal crisis with more seriousness than we have seen in a generation and revitalized "Golden Rule" politics as the most just and reasonable way out of it.
It is easy to demonstrate the insignificance of the budget cuts agreed to last Friday-especially now that many have been exposed as accounting gimmicks, already-canceled expenditures, and the like. With $14 trillion of accumulated debt and annual $1 trillion deficits projected as far as the eye can see, cutting (even a real) $38 billion from the $3.8 trillion 2011 budget-one penny on each dollar-is plainly too little and perhaps too late. But as the disappointed homepage of the "Tea Party Patriots" website rightly notes, any cut, no matter how small, would have been inconceivable without the efforts of Tea Party members over the last two years. So too Wednesday night's attempt by President Obama to reclaim credibility as a budget hawk after two-plus years of spending $100,000 for every $60,000 of federal revenue.
When, 50 years ago, a similar movement arose around the unsuccessful presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater, it was easy for establishment critics to ridicule it as "extreme" or simply "against everything." But the heart of that campaign, best encapsulated in Ronald Reagan's famous 1964 speech, "A Time for Choosing," was to take the side of the people in a fundamental debate: "whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves."
One problem with government-by-smart-guys is that the smart guys ain't all that smart. Far too often they aim their policy bullets at social problems and end up hitting the people they mean to help-with a lot of other collateral damage. But the deeper problem with this sort of government, identified by Reagan and challenged by the Tea Party movement, is its denial of the full humanity of the governed. It is one thing for a parent to care for a child in his youth; it is another to keep him in perpetual childhood.
Is there a simple way out of our fiscal crisis? Not if simple means only tinker around the edges of the status quo. But Reagan and the Tea Party have reminded us of a simple principle that should guide all American public policy: the Golden Rule. Why is it right for the Tea Party to insist that we obey the (real) Constitution? Because it is the common rule of our politics and the common security for all who live under it. Why it is right for the Tea Party to call for immediate, serious action to reduce our long-term debt? Because you don't leave your mess for others to clean up. Why is it right for the Tea Party to challenge "earmarks" and every other form of special tax or spending privilege? Because these do unto others what I would not have done to myself-making them work so that I can eat.
In the looming debates over the 2012 budget and the national debt ceiling, let the application of the Golden Rule guide us back toward the goal Reagan articulated in 1964: "the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order." Let Rep. Ryan and President Obama grab a healthy supply of red pens and go through each line in the tax code and the budget, scratching out every item that carves out a particular niche of privilege or special benefit for this group or that group, gives artificial advantages to one industry (or company) or another, etc.-all carefully selected by "a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital." Enough paternalism-by-pocketbook; a self-governing people deserves a self-governing government.