The late Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota was a man of the hard left—"the Senate's most liberal member," as Mickey Kaus once termed him in the liberal online journal Slate. Wellstone opposed the first Iraq War—and the second one. He was no friend of the Second Amendment—or the First. He thought the government should strictly control campaign ads by groups such as the Sierra Club and the NRA. Even The New York Times, which supports the rationing of political speech, called Wellstone's idea a proposal "of questionable constitutionality."
Wellstone died in a plane crash in 2002, and was immediate lionized. The Washington Post called him one of the Senate's "leading liberals. . . . Colleagues from across the political spectrum praised Wellstone as a passionate advocate for his beliefs." He was "a hero to the left," the paper said, noting "there was little doubt where his heart lay." To The New York Times, Wellstone was "a rumpled, unfailingly modest man," a "firebrand," and although "his opponents always portrayed him as a left-wing extremist," Wellstone was "so happy, so comfortable, so unthreatening that he was able to ward off the attacks." Rumor has it he once fed a crowd with five loaves of bread and a couple of fish.
This is not, to put it mildly, how Tea Partiers and their congressional cohort have been portrayed during the recent game of chicken over the debt ceiling. Rather, those opposed to raising the debt ceiling—or willing to do so in exchange for a slowdown in the rate of government growth—are "obstreperous," "flatly and dangerously wrong," and "not interested in governing." (These are all quotes from major media organs, not obscure blogs.) They're "crazy" proponents of a "dangerous delusion"—"ridiculous," "extremist," "ultraorthodox tax haters," players of "ideological games," "totally unrealistic," authors of "madness," etc. etc.
Hey, what happened to people of conviction? Aren't the Tea Partiers "firebrands"? Isn't there little doubt where their hearts lie?
Rather than praise Tea Partiers as passionate advocates for their beliefs, many in the press have taken to marginalizing them with mean-spirited attacks on their sanity. Wellstone, who championed the rights of the mentally ill, would not be proud.
At this point it might be useful to clarify precisely what the dispute concerns. The question is not whether the federal government should grow. As Reason's Nick Gillespie pointed out a few days ago, nearly nobody in Washington has actually proposed shrinking the leviathan. To the contrary, the dispute is whether to raise federal spending from the current $3.8 trillion to $4.7 trillion over the next decade (the Paul Ryan plan)—or to $5.7 trillion (the Obama plan).
Bear in mind that those increases would come on top of one of the fastest expansions of federal spending in U.S. history. When President Obama took office, the budget stood at $2.9 trillion. Two. Point. Nine.
Spending has risen 30 percent in the past three years. It is quite a feat to grow federal spending faster than the Bush administration: Under Bush, domestic discretionary spending rose faster than at any time since the Lyndon Johnson administration.
If Bush floored the accelerator, then Obama lit the afterburners. And nobody in Washington (except Sen. Rand Paul and perhaps Sen. Tom Coburn) has suggested applying the brakes. For the most part, the cuts being discussed are reductions in the rate of future growth. What does that mean? This: (a) your rent is $10,000 this year; (b) you thought you were going to spend $15,000 next year; but (c) you've decided to spend only $12,000—therefore, (d) you've "cut" your housing expenses by $3,000.
Washington already spends quite enough, thank you very much. But to say this is not (as some on the left have snidely suggested) to argue that big business and the rich should not help solve the debt problem. They certainly should—and programs benefitting the well-off should be first on the chopping block: farm subsidies, export promotion, and so on. Welfare for big corporations should disappear entirely before the first dollar of welfare for poor individuals is touched. Likewise, the Defense Department needs to go on a diet. (Coburn's plan has a host of suggestions about how to put it on one.)
You won't find Tea Party activists cheering on corporate welfare, either. They're not exactly lining up to defend the Agriculture Department's market-access program, the Commerce Department's research grants (read: handouts) to high-tech companies, or the U.S. Maritime Administration's loan guarantees to help facilitate the purchase of ships from U.S. shipyards. Many of them and their ideological compatriots would be more than happy to cut those government programs, and plenty more. Rand Paul would eliminate the Commerce and Energy Departments entirely, for instance.
You'd think liberals would be glad to hear it. But they are not, because those ideas are part of the overall tea party belief that government cannot continue to grow at an ever-accelerating rate—a belief now dismissed as not only wrong, but clinically insane.
The sad part? By Washington standards, it probably is.
A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. This article originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.