Mr. Smith Has Come to Washington — Now What

The new Congress has an unprecedented number of first-time members, thanks to the Tea Party, and half of these (around 45, I believe) have never held any elected office. Leaving aside one’s reaction to the Tea Party, which on the left can be summarized as a horrified shudder, this influx of ordinary citizens is like a mass replay of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: innocent, patriotic Americans have come to topple fat, corrupt politicians.

Actually, I hope this isn’t a caricature. The Tea Party is fuzzy, angry, and irrational. But if everyone agrees that Washington is broken, throwing a lot of Mr. Smiths into the mix may start something rolling. The accepted wisdom is that it won’t. On his first day as House speaker, John Boehner backed off the Tea Party pledge to cut $100 billion out of this year’s budget, reducing it, maybe, to half of that. The Tea Partyers ran on other dubious promises like refusing to raise the country’s debt ceiling. Now that they have a seat in Congress, Boehner is urging new members to be sensible and act like adults. Without an increased debt ceiling, the U.S. cannot issue bonds and the government can’t keep running.

It’s hard to put aside that some of these Mr. Smiths are running on rage and fumes on the brain. Their thinking is preposterous, for example, when they pledge to reduce taxes while at the same time reducing the debt — the two are opposites. On the other hand, these new insurgents induce deep fear in sitting politicians, in both the House and Senate and across the aisle. If the Tea Party is stonewalled and business returns to the same old rigid ideas — no raised taxes if you are a Republican, no reduction in entitlements if you are a Democrat — more hornets may fly out of the nest in 2012. Last year an unprecedented number of incumbents were swept out of office. Why not more?

If we are lucky, the new Tea Party members, once they get past gimmicks like reading the Constitution on the House floor, will leverage change. It would be better if fear and unreason were not prime motivations, but the country has been caught too long in a political Catch-22 when it comes to taxing and spending. When times are good, nobody feels bad enough to push for reform, and when times are bad, everyone feels too weak to demand reform. We’re in very bad times now, yet the course ahead — budget cuts, entitlement reductions, and higher taxes — is coming into focus. A sort of begrudging consensus is forming in the back rooms between Democrats and Republicans. Even so, under normal conditions the logjam would continue until a deep crisis befell the economy. If we’re lucky, the Tea Party may be riding into town with sufficient warning to avert the kind of bad decisions that are made when catastrophe is just around the bend. The model that these history-addicted partisans need to look at isn’t the dumping of tea into Boston Harbor but the midnight ride of Paul Revere.

Published by The San Francisco Chronicle