Goldberg: Wake up and smell the tea

"Is this a wake-up call to Washington?" NBC's David Gregory asked Sen. John Kerry on "Meet the Press," referring to the S&P downgrade.

"Well, it's a partial wake-up call. I believe this is, without question, the 'tea party' downgrade."

Very shortly after pointing fingers and assigning blame, Kerry went on to lament how Republicans insist on pointing fingers and assigning blame in this national crisis.

Over on the other channel, at least President Obama's political consigliere, David Axelrod, waited for a while before getting to the same talking point: "The fact of the matter is that this is essentially a tea party downgrade. The tea party brought us to the brink of a default," he explained on CBS' "Face the Nation."

Many on the right bristle at this, and they have many of the facts on their side. To listen to some liberals, you'd think the downgrade is a direct result of Washington's failure to raise taxes to pay for the massive increase in federal spending under Obama. But that's not what it says. "Standard & Poor's takes no position on the mix of spending and revenue measures that Congress and the administration might conclude is appropriate for putting the U.S.' finances on a sustainable footing."

Rather, what offended the fiscal pundits of S&P was the "brinksmanship" in Washington that failed to deliver a $4-trillion dollar budget cut. What's odd is that if the tea party didn't exist, there would be no deficit reduction — and little demand for it. Democrats fought spending cuts during the budget showdown last year (remember Harry Reid's cowboy poet subsidy?) and wanted a "clean" debt-ceiling hike.

And one could go on defending the tea party and the GOP in typical Beltway scoring fashion. The president's first 2012 budget was a train wreck that would have exploded the deficit more. We're well past 800 days without a Democratic budget from the Senate while the House Republicans passed a serious budget — the Ryan plan — that would have avoided all of this months ago. Obama's second "plan" was a frivolous speech. And so on.

But the usual beltway score card is inadequate. First of all, we all deserve blame. This is a national foul-up of historic proportions, and no party or constituency can completely avoid culpability.

And that definitely includes the tea party. A lot of people talk as if the tea party came out of the ground, like fully grown orcs, shortly after Barack Obama was elected, ready to inflict "terror" and "take hostages" (to use the preferred lingo of the supposed lovers of civility).

This ignores the prehistory of the tea partyers. They're largely core conservative voters who held their noses while spending ramped up for a decade under George W. Bush. Many rationalized their support for Bush against the backdrop of the war on terror or their fondness for the man generally. But when Obama removed what little conservatism there was in Bush's "compassionate conservatism," massively hiking spending even more, they rebelled. Enough was enough.

Liberals see it as hypocrisy. Tea partyers see it as finally getting serious, which is why they keep threatening to "primary" any Republican who wavers from the new sobriety.

If you've ever known anyone with a serious addiction, you know the easiest thing for friends and family to do is pretend it's not a big deal. Who wants to have a confrontation? Far easier to let things slide and have a good time.

The tea party is like the cousin who's been through AA and refuses to pretend anymore. As a result he spoils everyone's good time. For the enablers, and others in denial, he's the guy ruining everything, not the drunk.

Uncle Sam is the drunk and the tea partyers are the annoyingly sober — and a bit self-righteous — cousin. Measured by spending, and adjusted for inflation, the federal government has increased by more than 50% in 10 years. Some have enabled the drunken spending, others continue to deny it's even a problem.

And the tea party is sounding the wake-up call. If America didn't have a problem, then there really would be good cause to be furious with the forces of sobriety.

Nobody likes a party-pooper, especially the people hooked on partying.

jgoldberg@latimescolumnists.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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