The Ryan Budget Proves the Tea Party's Power Is Here to Stay

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Thought it had faded? Not so fast. The new GOP budget, disdained by GOP and Democratic elites alike, shows the movement was underestimated.

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Remember the 2012 presidential campaign -- that sort-of big event that we've all been obsessing about? Well, the Republican-led House of Representives, the epicenter for Tea Party passions, doesn't seem very interested in who's going to be president at the moment. With the House set to engage in another vicious fight over today's new 2013 budget proposal by Rep. Paul Ryan, we are witnessing once again a phenomenon that's been apparent since the 2010 election: the Tea Party movement still holds the commanding heights of American politics. It is still setting the agenda for national debate. It wants what it wants. And it doesn't much care what anyone in either the GOP or Democratic Party thinks about it.

Consider: While the GOP presidential candidates are all keeping arms' length from the Ryan budget, knowing that its proposals for immediate deep cuts will be unpopular, conservatives in the House are attacking Ryan from the other side, frustrated that his $1.028 trillion spending plan is too meek and takes too many years to bring the budget into balance. The Washington Post quoted one "senior GOP strategist" as whining that the "House Republicans are still under the mistaken impression they have to lead. It's a presidential election year; they're along for the ride."

Sorry, pal, it's you who's along for the ride. And Mitt Romney. And Rick Santorum. And Newt Gingrich. They've all spent the campaign trying to prove their small-government bona fides, with limited success, to a radicalized base. Now it's about to get tougher for them to vouch for their authenticity: the Ryan budget they want to avoid, just rolled out today, virtually ensures that the budget standoff will continue through November. In this debate, the presidential campaign will be just so much noise.

A kind of parallel political universe exists in the country today, completely separate from the presidential campaign. In an article last summer about the debt-ceiling fight, I questioned whether the Tea Party revolt that brought America to the brink of first-ever default was simply a bunch of Dog Day Afternoon crazies holding the country hostage, or were these people more John Brown-kind-of-crazy? Was the standoff, in other words, a kind of economic Harpers Ferry -- the first shots fired in a righteous war over the size of government? Were we witnessing the outbreak of a civil war over opposing fundamental views of Washington?

I think the answer is clearer now. Fault them, if you will, as a band of primitivist monomaniacs, question whether they are sincere enough to surrender their own Social Security and Medicare as well as everyone else's, but the Tea Partiers are not going to fade away. They clearly represent a deep and abiding -- and perhaps last-ditch -- movement of resistance to the indomitable tendency of American government to grow ever larger. They know that the various eruptions of conservative rebellion since the Reagan era, including the Gingrich-led takeover of the House in 1994, each amounted to little more than one step forward, two steps back. They know that George W. Bush blew the budget out entirely. And they know that none of the GOP candidates, "establishment" or not, is delivering up the answer they want. Except maybe for Ron Paul, which accounts for his rise from the fringes.

Mancur Olson, the late, great University of Maryland economist, theorized that the demands of ever-multiplying special interests in Washington will win out over those who fight for the "common good." These interests pile up over time and cause a kind of sclerosis in the system. That's why government spending and programs tend to accumulate rather than decrease.

The Tea Party conservatives seem to have divined this tendency, whether they've read Olson or not (likely not), and they want to stand athwart it and yell, "Stop." While Romney talks in general terms about how his business acumen is what's needed to slash government, and Santorum about how this campaign is really about "being a fighter for freedom," and Newt harks back to his split-second of glory in '94-95, the fed-up American conservatives who loosely make up the Tea Party are still looking for a real champion. But more, they believe they are pursuing a real cause.

Bet on it. Like them or not, they're not going away, no matter who wins in November.

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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