Tea-Party Call to Cut Spending Gains Traction
Grover Norquist, the veteran crusader for tax cuts, has seen a lot of groups passionate about a particular cause take a seat at the Republican Party's table over the years. There are the gun owners and the Christian conservatives, the business lobby, the defense hawks and the anti-abortion activists.
But this year, thanks to the tea-party movement, Mr. Norquist has seen a new seat pulled up: the cut-spending seat.
That is to say, there is now an activist group within the Republican orbit interested, first and foremost, in demanding that government spending be cut. Oh sure, there have always been people at the GOP table who said they were for cutting spending, but it wasn't their A-1, top priority.
That's how federal spending was able to rise 36%, while the federal budget moved from surplus to deficit, between 2001 and 2007, when President George W. Bush and his Republican Party were in full control.
But the last year has brought a change, one already having real political impact. There's now a large swath of voters who say that cutting spending is at the top of their list of concerns. Indeed, in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll this month, support for spending cuts was the single attribute most likely to make voters enthusiastic about a candidate for Congress this fall.
There's little doubt that this sentiment is, at least in some measure, a result of the tea-party movement, which sprang up largely as a visceral reaction to spending. "That's what got this whole thing started way back in early 2009, when the stimulus bill came out," says Judson Phillips, a Tennessee attorney and leader of the Tea Party Nation, an organization of activists. "People just realized that we can't afford this, and we can't spend our way into prosperity."
There followed opposition to the health-care overhaul, and now the tea-party movement has splintered among activists with a mishmash of other causes. "I hate to say it, but I don't know that this movement right now has a unifying theme," Mr. Phillips says. But spending, he says, was "the trigger."
"If I'm a congressman or I'm a candidate, I have seen people talk about spending the way they used to talk about taxes or abortion or guns," [Mr. Norquist] says. "Clearly this is a vote-moving issue."
And while the message has particular resonance for Republicans, Democrats aren't deaf to it either. That's why you're already seeing real-world effects. Congress has balked in recent weeks at extending unemployment benefits, for example, and at sending emergency aid to cash-strapped states about to lay off teachers and cops.
Some Democrats as well as Republicans shied away from spending the money, and that simply wouldn't have happened in the past. Among other things, that means spending-cut fever is getting in the way of sending more fiscal stimulus from Washington out across the country, fueling a debate about whether this period of faltering recovery from recession is really the right time for Washington to get into belt-tightening.
There's also a big political gap between talking about cutting spending and actually doing it. What will other groups around that Republican table say when cutting spending means slicing deep into the defense budget, or cutting the budget of the Export-Import Bank, which supports business sales abroad?
And will all the tea-party crusaders really go along if cutting spending translates into reducing their Medicare and Social Security benefits? In short, the cut-spending movement has begun, but its exact path isn't yet clear.