The Tea Party that has gotten all the attention, the amorphous, self-generated protest against the growth in government and the deficit, is what I’d actually call the “Tea Kettle movement” — because all it’s doing is letting off steam.
That is not to say that the energy behind it is not authentic (it clearly is) or that it won’t be electorally impactful (it clearly might be). But affecting elections and affecting America’s future are two different things. Based on all I’ve heard from this movement, it feels to me like it’s all steam and no engine. It has no plan to restore America to greatness.
The Tea Kettle movement can’t have a positive impact on the country because it has both misdiagnosed America’s main problem and hasn’t even offered a credible solution for the problem it has identified. How can you take a movement seriously that says it wants to cut government spending by billions of dollars but won’t identify the specific defense programs, Social Security, Medicare or other services it’s ready to cut — let alone explain how this will make us more competitive and grow the economy?
The issues that upset the Tea Kettle movement — debt and bloated government — are actually symptoms of our real problem, not causes. They are symptoms of a country in a state of incremental decline and losing its competitive edge, because our politics has become just another form of sports entertainment, our Congress a forum for legalized bribery and our main lawmaking institutions divided by toxic partisanship to the point of paralysis.I'm completely with his analysis so far... Then he presents his diagnosis
The important Tea Party movement, which stretches from centrist Republicans to independents right through to centrist Democrats, understands this at a gut level and is looking for a leader with three characteristics. First, a patriot: a leader who is more interested in fighting for his country than his party. Second, a leader who persuades Americans that he or she actually has a plan not just to cut taxes or pump stimulus, but to do something much larger — to make America successful, thriving and respected again.
Democratic Pollster Stan Greenberg told me that when he does focus groups today this is what he hears: “People think the country is in trouble and that countries like China have a strategy for success and we don’t. They will follow someone who convinces them that they have a plan to make America great again. That is what they want to hear. It cuts across Republicans and Democrats.”He goes on to briefly share some ideas on what it would take to strengthen this "core competency" of innovation and creativity.
To me, that is a plan that starts by asking: what is America’s core competency and strategic advantage, and how do we nurture it? Answer: It is our ability to attract, develop and unleash creative talent. That means men and women who invent, build and sell more goods and services that make people’s lives more productive, healthy, comfortable, secure and entertained than any other country.
I have very mixed feelings here. On the one hand, I think he's absolutely right that this is America's core competency. On the other hand, there's a sense in which what he proposes is doubling down on the strategy that got us into trouble in the first place. It's not like our current problems are because we stopped innovating - just look at the patent stats - or stopped working our asses off. No, our current problems are precisely the unpleasant side effects of prior innovation. Americans invented assembly-line auto-production, and now we're struggling with needing more oil for the resulting cars than is easily available. Americans invented the internet, and now we're struggling with competition from low cost workers overseas competing via that same Internet. Americans invented industrial robotics, and shipping containerization, and now we're struggling with declining manufacturing employment as workers must compete with both machines and globally sourced production.
So Friedman's diagnosis amounts to a Red Queen situation. We are not running hard enough to stay in the same place, so we should run faster. Damned if we do, and damned if we don't, as far as I can see at the present.