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Can Progressives and Tea Partiers Find Love Across the Aisle?

Can Progressives and Tea Partiers Find Love Across the Aisle?

With the first shock waves of Tuesday’s election reverberating across Washington and the country, armchair pundits are taking it as gospel that the results will inevitably mean gridlock as progressives and newly elected Tea Partiers lock horns in mortal combat. This may be true on a number of issues, but there might also be several surprising areas of convergence, including on some aspects of foreign-policy. For many people, the Tea Party’s foreign policy agenda has been largely a cipher. As Kate Zernike noted, “Tea Partiers say they want to focus on economic conservatism, meaning that they don’t spend a lot of time talking about other topics — foreign policy, or social issues like gay marriage and abortion.” But it is not so difficult to predict where the Tea Party impulse lies on a number of issues.

As always, the toughest test for Tea Party novices in Congress — beyond learning that nothing is really ever off the record in this town — will be sticking to the ideals championed in their candidacies. Many of them will quickly be tested by whether their loyalty lies with the Republican leadership or the platforms on which they ran. Washington has seen many self-proclaimed outsiders come and go.  

Progressives face their own set of challenges. Some pundits will be quick to point to the election results as a repudiation of a progressive agenda rather than the natural fallout from the slow job growth after a devastating economic downturn. There will be the usual bout of finger-pointing that follows a hard loss. Progressives will need to ask hard questions about what they could have done better and figure out whether they want to work across the aisle and make incremental progress or simply try to portray the Tea Party as out of the mainstream.

Those obvious tensions within both the Tea Party and progressive politics aside, here are some areas where these two natural enemies might actually find common cause — while still sticking to their core beliefs:

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Afghanistan and Iraq: Just as Afghanistan and Iraq have been difficult issues for Democrats, they will likely become more so for the Republicans with the rise of the Tea Party. Both Republicans and Democrats largely ignored Afghanistan and Iraq on the campaign trail, primarily because both parties have some sharp internal divisions on the wars and because economic anger seemed to touch far more buttons on the campaign trail than foreign policy. Some Tea Partiers, such as Marco Rubio and Sarah Palin, favor aggressive international interventions along the lines of Dick Cheney, but the majority of them view foreign entanglements of any kind with skepticism. Peggy Noonan argues that the Tea Party represents a sharp split from the previous administration’s neoconservatism: “The Tea Party did something the Republican establishment was incapable of doing: It got the party out from under George W. Bush. The Tea Party rejected his administration’s spending, overreach and immigration proposals, among other items, and has been only too willing to say so.” President Barack Obama may well find pressure from centrist Republicans and more conservative Democrats to stay in Afghanistan and Iraq longer than he would like. At the same time, he will likely face growing pressure from both progressives and Tea Partiers to accelerate the pace of draw down in Afghanistan, which is slated to begin in July 2011.

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Cutting Defense Spending: The Republican leadership has traditionally been loath to cut a nickel from the Defense Department, despite the fact that annual U.S. military spending has more than doubled over the last decade. The Tea Partiers say they are serious about balancing the budget and substantially cutting the deficit, a goal that is almost impossible to achieve without taking a hard look at the Pentagon. It will be interesting to see where the Tea Party comes out on defense spending. The philosophy of the movement’s leaders on defense spending runs a remarkable gamut — from Palin’s preference for increased spending to Ron Paul’s libertarian argument that sharp cuts are needed. Mark Meckler a founding member of the Tea Party Patriots argued, “Everything is on the table,” adding, “I have yet to hear anyone say, ‘We can’t touch defense spending.'” Progressives and Tea Partiers may find that cutting some defense spending would both reduce the deficit and allow for sensible investments in infrastructure and job creation that could produce greater growth and competitiveness over the long haul.

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Reforming Foreign Aid: While foreign aid has often been demonized by conservatives, progressives and Tea Partiers alike should be able to find some common ground around recent efforts by the Obama administration to tighten and refine international development programs. The White House’s plans for development programs, recently announced after a major strategy review, focus on fewer countries with a distinct emphasis on working with reform-minded governments to nurture broad-based economic growth. The Tea Partiers should also appreciate the administration’s recognition that foreign assistance needs to be more focused on results and that some of the biggest proponents of development assistance are the unimpeachable voices of Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen. Progressives should laud the fact that the administration seems newly willing to consider key factors like a country’s human rights record in determining whether it is a good candidate for aid. One big caveat here: Foreign aid is always an easy target for the budget ax, and if development programs are gutted, reform will be almost impossible to make operational. Rep. Eric Cantor’s recent suggestion that aid to Israel should be decoupled from the rest of the foreign operations budget to make cuts to other programs easier is just the first signal of what might be many tussles over aid funding.     

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Cutting Agriculture Subsidies: At first blush, this might seem like more of a domestic issue than an international one. Yet, the continuing high level of U.S. agricultural subsidies — which disproportionately benefit large agribusinesses, often at the cost of small farmers — has complicated international trade talks and made it consistently harder for developing countries to grow economically as they face a playing field tilted against them. Helping developing countries might not be high on the Tea Party agenda, but creating new markets and new jobs will be. Cutting these ag subsidies would give both progressives and Tea Partiers something to like: The federal budget would be reduced, developing countries would more likely grow and develop as markets, small U.S. farmers would be better positioned to succeed, and minimal costs would be passed on to the average American consumer. Agriculture subsidies have lived on for so long because of lobbying by corporate interests inside the Beltway, and it will be interesting to see whether the new blood in the Republican rank and file challenges their leadership on such orthodoxies. Several Tea Party candidates, including Joe Miller in Alaska and Stephen Fincher in Tennessee, have benefited directly from agriculture subsidies in their professional lives, but most of the Tea Party is inclined to see these subsidies as little more than continued government bloat.

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Taking on Earmarks: Both Democrats and Republicans have had an abiding fondness for earmarks over the years despite repeatedly swearing them off. Earmarks on the foreign-policy accounts are some of the least remarked on in terms of the public debate, but also some of the most important in shaping, and sometimes distorting, U.S. policy abroad. There are many examples of members of Congress pushing for earmarks for their favorite local university doing research abroad or a local charity delivering pet projects — even when these programs have little to do with U.S. foreign-policy objectives or a sensible plan for long-term development. If the Obama administration is committed to being more transparent and consultative on where it wants to spend money around the globe, Congress should live up to its own end of the bargain and try to limit the sheer number of earmarks and other efforts at micromanagement of foreign policy. Both progressives and Tea Partiers recognize that earmarks usually do not make for good government; it will be telling to see whether they can make common cause to limit them.

It would be naive to think that the bruising 2010 midterm election will leave in its wake sunny harmony, particularly on the foreign-policy front. But it would be equally mistaken to assume that a divided government is incapable of getting anything done — especially on key areas of foreign policy, where unexpected alignments might actually bring the extremes of both parties across the aisle. Washington has always made for strange bedfellows, and 2011 should be no exception.

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