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Payback at the Polls

Let's not shoot the messenger. Yes, the tea party victors are a mixed bag espousing often contradictory and at times weird positions, the source of their funding is questionable and their proposed solutions are vague and at times downright nutty. But they represent the most significant political response to the economic pain that has traumatized swaths of the nation at a time when so-called progressives have been reduced to abject impotence by their deference to a Democratic president. 

Barack Obama deserved the rebuke he received at the polls for a failed economic policy that consisted of throwing trillions at Wall Street but getting nothing in return. His amen chorus in the media is quick to blame everyone but the president for his sharp reversal of fortunes. But it is not the fault of tea party Republicans that they responded to the rage out there over lost jobs and homes while the president remained indifferent to the many who are suffering. 

At a time when, as a Washington Post poll reported last week, 53 percent of Americans fear they can't make next month's mortgage or rent payment, the president chirped inanely to Jon Stewart that his top economics adviser, Lawrence Summers, who was paid $8 million by Wall Street firms while advising candidate Obama, had done a "heckuva job" in helping avoid another Great Depression. What kind of consolation is that for the 50 million Americans who have lost their homes or are struggling to pay off mortgages that are "underwater"? The banks have been made whole by the Fed, providing virtually interest-free money while purchasing trillions of dollars of the banks' toxic assets. Yet the financial industry response has been what Paul Volcker has called a "liquidity trap"-denying loans for business investment or the refinancing necessary to keep people in their homes.

Instead of meeting that crisis head-on with a temporary moratorium on housing foreclosures, as more than half of those surveyed by the Post wanted, the president summarily turned down that sensible proposal. Instead he attempted to shift the focus to his tepid health care reform and was surprised that many voters didn't think he did them a favor by locking them into insurance programs not governed by cost controls. Health care reform was viewed by many voters with the same disdain with which they reacted to the underfunded and unfocused stimulus program. Neither seems relevant to turning around an economy that a huge majority feels is getting worse, according to Election Day exit polls.

That is a problem that is not obvious to the power elites whom the leaders of both political parties serve or to the high-paid media pundits who cheer them on. The tea party revolt, ragged as it is, fed on a massive populist outrage that so-called progressives had failed to respond to because of their allegiance to Obama. As a result the Democrats squandered the hopes of their base, which rewarded the party with a paltry turnout at polling stations.

But it now remains for the tea party victors to prove that they are a viable alternative, or by the next election they too will find that their base of support has evaporated. This should be of great concern to the libertarian wing of that movement, which scored a considerable victory and a much-enhanced national presence with Rand Paul's Senate victory in Kentucky. Will he stick to his promise to hold the Federal Reserve accountable and oppose the continuing favors to Wall Street that he has blasted as "a transfer of wealth from those who have earned to those who have squandered"?

The tea party is now in the awkward position previously occupied by the Obama hope crusade of having to deliver and will suffer a similar political fate if it fails to deal with the economic crisis. In particular, the Republicans who will control the House, thanks to the tea party, must come up with proposals to solve the housing crisis or they will stand exposed as political opportunists who intend to exploit rather than deal with the economic anxiety felt not only by their base but much of the country.

Some Democratic leaders will urge Obama to follow President Bill Clinton's lead after his party's electoral reversal in the 1994 election and move even further to the right to strengthen his prospects for re-election. It was that opportunistic shift by Clinton that led to his signing off on the radical deregulation of the financial industry that caused the economic meltdown. If Obama follows such advice it will spell further disaster for the nation.

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