The April 15 "tea party" demonstrations may in some cases have had dubious sponsorships but their message, nonetheless, must be taken seriously.
Citizens of all political persuasions properly are upset about the financial burdens thrust on them by reckless bankers and Wall Street high-fliers; lax regulators and overseers; and mortgage companies which wrote mortgages for people who did not qualify for them. Ordinary folk who played by the rules, saved, made their scheduled mortgage and tax payments, and made supposedly "safe" investments have paid for the folly of entitled rascals — and do not like it.
The ultimate fallout is yet to be seen. It will depend, in part, on the depth and length of our present downturn. It also will depend on citizens' judgments about steps being taken to set things right. The whole episode could lead to strong Republican Congressional gains next year. Another possibility is the emergence of a populist, third-force candidate (such as Ross Perot who, in 1992, got 19 percent of the Presidential popular vote despite committing one campaign pratfall after another). Or it could subside and simply make elected officials more sensitive to taxing/spending issues.
Mainstream media and commentators may have mocked the April 15 rallies. Elected officials have not. In Seattle, City Council members have placed the burden of service cutbacks entirely on Mayor Greg Nickels. In Olympia, both Gov. Chris Gregoire and the Legislature are striving mightily to close a huge budget gap without offending important constituencies or raising general tax levels. That is Mission Impossible. In Washington, D.C., President Barack Obama faces a more skeptical Congress and polarized electorate than he did on his inaugural January 20. Immediately at issue are his expensive new health-care and energy proposals (see my April 14 article for details).
Returning from recess, the Congress is revisiting the matter of those proposals and their affordability, as well as Obama's campaign-promised tax cuts for all but wealthy taxpayers. According to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, the top 0.1 percent of taxpayers would pay an average increase of $371,675 annually in federal taxes, under the Obama Plan, in order to provide tax cuts to lower-income taxpayers. But even Obama supporters concede that, given the costs of his proposals, tax increases would be certain for even middle-income taxpayers. His agenda cannot be financed without doing so.
Moreover, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation, which provides independent guidance to the Congress, Obama's tax proposals will lead to $3 trillion in lost revenue over the next decade. Federal budget deficits are projected at $1 trillion and above, annually, for a long period.
As an avid supporter of Obama's nomination and election, I am sympathetic to his desire to move forward on long delayed health-care and energy agendas. But, with deep federal deficits — in the midst of a financial crisis — he could not have chosen a riskier time to push them forward. I had thought, after his election, that he would delay them until we got out of the current trough. But he has not.
Obama's everything-now strategy has succeeded in unifying Congressional Republicans. It also has alarmed Congressional Democrats — especially those from marginal or "swing" districts — who fear for their survival in 2010 if deficits deepen. They, in particular, are the ones who took the April 15 demonstrations quite seriously.
Obama has forged forward so aggressively because he believes his "first 100 days" honeymoon period was his best chance to do so. But the honeymoon now is ending and his health and energy proposals are not yet in finished form for Congressional consideration. Will he pull back temporarily, giving the country and Congress time to consider and digest those proposals, or will he continue full speed ahead even though the financial rescue, the auto bailout, and other near-term crises have not been resolved? I fear Obama has badly overreached.