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What’s next for the Tea Party?

The Heritage Foundation just wrapped up a panel discussion to that effect, called “Where Does the Tea Party Go from Here?” Panelists included Billie Tucker, executive director of the First Coast Tea Party in Florida, Ed Morrissey from Hot Air, and Byron York, the chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner. After some initial hand-wringing about whether enjoying great success in enacting its agenda will dissipate the Tea Party movement, the panelists all agreed that such a prospect was unlikely if only because the House GOP won’t be able to enact the majority of its agenda.

“After the last two years, many would view gridlock as progress,” said Morrissey. “A lot of [the Tea Party's] platform was negatives: to stop what the administration and Democrats had been doing. … If they see the House working hard and passing things, keeping up with all of these issues, even if not all of them get through the Senate, or if the president vetoes them, they’ll understand.”

The most interesting discussion, however, came in response to a question about entitlement spending and whether the Tea Party and the next Congress will find the resolve to tackle the issue, as all three panelists offered different views that nicely summarize the divergent takes on the issue.

“We know it is a problem,” said Tucker. “We know we can’t talk about doing away with spending without talking about entitlements. But we don’t like thinking of Social Security as an entitlement. … We paid into a system. The problem is corruption happened and they didn’t do with the money what was supposed to happen with the money…. When it comes to entitlements for poeple who are not willing to work, we’re willing to talk about that, but [we need to] take care of people who pay into the system.”

“Social Security and Medicare are not two equal entitlement areas,” said Morrissey. “Medicare is an utter disaster just waiting to happen and you just can’t get around that. It will be a measure of the new Congress’ seriousness whether or not they’re willing to address it. … Whether they’re willing to do something about it is really going to be a function of how much the Tea Party holds them accountable.”

“When they were drawing up their pledge, Republicans debated about what to include in terms of entitlement spending and ultimately left it out,” said York. “My guess is you won’t see any serious action in the next two years in terms of entitlement reform.”

So you’ve got three competing takes within the GOP in a nutshell. Morrissey’s take represents the true fiscally conservative approach to the issue, while York is the realist about what the GOP will actually have the political courage to take on. Tucker, meanwhile, channels the debate into a common undertone of concerns among the Tea Party: the belief that if the government rooted out corruption and only rewarded those who paid into the system, there would be no problem. No talk of demographic realities, an aging population or the rising cost of health care — just a sense that the program is being dragged under by government corruption and/or poor people.

The third view won’t close the deficit, but it might give Republicans a free pass to focus on smaller yet more visible instances of waste, fraud and abuse, or unemployment insurance, and yet stay in the good graces of the Tea Party.

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