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The Daily Debate - 6/5/2013

By Robert Tracinski

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June 5, 2013

1. "You've Forgotten Your Place"

2. Reform Party

3. Dispatches

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1. "You've Forgotten Your Place"

Do you want to know what the IRS scandal is all about? You can get the whole thing, from the details to the big ideological issues to its profound emotional resonance—all of it in a little under eight minutes—by watching a statement to yesterday's House Way and Means Committee hearing by Becky Gerritson of the Wetumpka Tea Party in Alabama.

You can get from this the basic motive of the Tea Party movement. She describes how they were reacting to the combination of the TARP bailout of the big banks and the giant stimulus bill in early 2009.

"We were worried, and we knew that we had to do something to sound the alarm. We knew the government had gone far beyond its habitual deficit spending. The government was mortgaging America's future. And we knew that Washington wasn't going to stop by itself."

You can hear about the nefarious activities of the Tea Party groups: citizens getting permits for a meeting at a local park, going door to door handing out fliers to their neighbors, and standing up to speak to their fellow citizens.

"A few politicians came also, but they didn't speak. We wanted to give ordinary citizens the chance to speak their concerns."

You can get the basic facts about IRS obstruction of non-profit applications by Tea Party groups. Gerritson describes how her organization's application for non-profit status was held up for 635 days and approved only after she first considered dropping it and then sought out a lawyer to represent her.

"The Wetumpka Tea Party filled out a complete application. Our organization fell within the boundaries of receiving a 501(c)4 status. Yet our application was singled out solely because we had 'Tea Party' in our name. Government agents made invasive and excessive demands for information they were not entitled to.... This was not an accident. This was a willful act of intimidation to discourage a point of view."

Most of all, you can hear Gerritson's eloquent statement of the fundamental issue:

"I'm not here as a serf or a vassal. I'm not begging my lords for mercy. I'm a born free American woman, wife, mother, and citizen. And I'm telling my government that you've forgotten your place. It is not your responsibility to look out for my well-being and to monitor my speech. It's not your right to assert an agenda. Your post, the post that you occupy, exists to preserve American liberty. You've sworn to perform that duty, and you have faltered."

And here's why you have to watch the video. In writing, this sounds like a defiant indictment of government. But when she speaks, Gerritson's voice involuntarily breaks with emotion—and it's not anger or outrage, as you might expect. It's anguish. She's on the verge of tears.

As she says at the beginning of her statement, Gerritson and her husband were not involved in politics before they started their Tea Party group. They were not the sort of people who attended political rallies, much less organized them. They would probably much rather be spending time on their jobs, their families, their hobbies. It's clear that she's not testifying to Congress because she's spoiling for a fight. She's broken up about it.

As she says at the conclusion of her testimony—the second time that her voice breaks with emotion:

"I'm not interested in scoring political points. I want to protect and preserve the America that I grew up in, the America that people cross oceans and risk their lives to become a part of. And I'm terrified it is slipping away."

I mention all of this because I see the casual contempt with which some defenders of the administration, with an obvious political motive, want to dismiss these scandals as irrelevant or overblown. Aside from being repugnant, this is exceptionally foolish. The IRS scandal is very real and very big. It involves fundamental issues about the role and limits of government, and it rouses profound passions. Which means that everyone has an interest in taking it seriously and getting to the bottom of it.

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2. Reform Party

The danger that the Obama administration's scandals pose for the Republican Party is not primarily that they will overreach—pushing for impeachment ahead of the evidence, for example—but rather that they will so enjoy seeing the administration on the ropes that they will no longer feel the necessity to reform their own party from within.

That's why I was glad to see the cause of reform taken up by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat.

"To the extent that there's a Big Idea for where the GOP should go from here that has any real traction within the party (as opposed to among right-of-center pundits) and that doesn't just reflect the self-interest of the GOP's big donors, it's probably what Ben Domenech has termed 'populist libertarianism'—a strain of thought that moves from the standard grassroots conservative view of Washington as an inherently corrupt realm of special interests and self-dealing elites to a broader skepticism of 'bigness' in all its forms (corporate as well as governmental), that regards the Bush era as an object lesson in everything that can go wrong (at home and abroad) when conservatives set aside this skepticism, and that sees the cause of limited government as a means not only to safeguarding liberty, but to unwinding webs of privilege and rent-seeking and enabling true equality of opportunity as well."

I have been moving toward a similar conclusion as well. The way I put it is that the Republican Party has to become the part of reform. It has to be seen as the party that is out to help the average citizen by sweeping away the petty obstructions and cronyism and vote-buying arrangements that get in the way of people who are trying to improve their own lot and rise up in the world.

But Douthat has doubts about this agenda.

"[A] GOP remade along libertarian-populist lines—more anti-interventionist abroad, suspicious of big government and big business at home—would be a much more interesting party, and in certain ways a more constructive force in American politics, than the GOP that Mitt Romney led down to defeat last fall....

"But could it win a presidential election? And would it deserve to? Right now I think the answers are no and no, because its broader economic agenda—to the extent that it exists—would be both politically untenable and mistaken on the merits....

"Principle matters, but context matters too, and conservatives simply cannot make economic policy successfully (or credibly cast themselves as a populist party on these issues) if they ignore the actual performance of the American economy over the last generation, and if they refuse to see that distributional issues as well as arguments from efficiency and liberty have to play a role in the way that we reform our tax code and our welfare state."

Ben Domenech comes back with a long reply, from which I'll just excerpt this one key passage.

"Douthat and many of the Beltway Burkeans, as wise as they are, are essentially preaching a message of soft technocracy which runs against the tides of our times. It relies on restoring trust in our institutions—a Romneyesque 'we can run government better and more efficiently than the Democrats'—while libertarian leaning politicians are capitalizing on the total lack of trust in those institutions to a great degree, and across partisan lines. This is a case which rejects solely incrementalist approaches as insufficient, and instead aims to tear down efforts of big government and big business, root and branch....

"The appeal of libertarian populism is that it refuses to cede the philosophical battle to the side of big government—and the permanence of a broken welfare/regulatory state and convoluted tax code—before the argument is even joined."

I agree that asking, "So what is your plan to run this giant, bloated big government apparatus?" misses the point. It reminds me of an odd challenge from Michael Lind at Salon, who argues that libertarianism is not a credible political philosophy because we can't name any countries that have adopted it. It is a challenge that is not quite honest (Lind rejects on ad hoc grounds a number of examples of countries with much smaller governments) and also astonishingly ignorant of history.

The libertarian utopia, or the closest we've come to it, is America itself, up to about 100 years ago. It was a country with no income tax and no central bank. (It was on the gold standard, for crying out loud. You can't get more libertarian than that.) It had few economic regulations and was still in the Lochner era, when such regulations were routinely struck down by the Supreme Court. There was no federal welfare state, no Social Security, no Medicare.

You can criticize this system, but America lived under it for longer than it has lived under the modern regulatory and welfare state, so you can't say it's not "credible." And while life was nowhere near as good as it is for Americans today—after another century of progress—the country had just finished one of the greatest periods of growth and economic progress in all of human history. Life for the common man was better than it had ever been before.

All of which means—to get back to Douthat and Domenech—that there are deep roots in American history for this "libertarian populist" agenda.

But I don't like the term "populist." because it suggests that you're supposed to play to some kind of class-warfare resentment of "elites." By encouraging the common man's resentment of the rich, you risk getting back to the same mindset as Douthat, who insists that you have to base your reforms on "distributional issues," which is a euphemism for advocating redistribution of wealth, but in a "conservative" form.

More deeply, populism is not an ideology or an agenda. It is a sales technique. Define populism as your agenda, and you will find yourself just chasing after anything that's popular. We have to define our agenda as free markets, individual rights, small government—and then sell this agenda to voters by choosing issues that really matter to them and demonstrating the concrete value of economic freedom in their lives.

My own sense is that the Republican Party is in trouble because it got ideologically lazy and formulaic. This is why folks like Douthat get the sense that the Republican agenda hasn't been updated since Reagan. Republican politicians saw Reaganism as a successful electoral formula to be mouthed, particularly during the primaries. But because it wasn't a living conviction, they didn't bother to translate it into action or see how it could be applied to generate a whole new reform agenda reaching today's voters.

It's going to be a long climb back out of that hole, but it's good to see that at least a few people on the right aren't letting the Obama administration's scandals distract them from the debate over reform.

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3. Dispatches

Tom Bevan takes on the phenomenon of politicians spending their whole lives in DC, leaving public office feet first.

Here is the case for permanent optimism, not just about the stock market but about the world in general.

The Bishop Hill blog, which I linked to yesterday, has a simplified and much clearer version of the argument about the statistical significance of global warming since 1880. Here is the bottom line:

"In essence then, the temperature data looks more like a line wiggling up and down at random than one that has an impetus towards higher temperatures. That being the case, the rises in temperature over the last two centuries and over the last decades of the twentieth century, look like nothing untoward. The global warming signal has not been detected in the temperature records."

If marriage is in decline, should we just abandon it and build a society not based on marriage?

The flip-side of an over-regulated economy: floating, autonomous city-states.

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—Robert Tracinski

The Daily Debate

edited by Robert Tracinski

Brought to you by RealClearPolitics.

Robert Tracinski is also editor of The Tracinski Letter.

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