Friday, April 16, 2010

Meeting a Tea Partier

I met a proud supporter of the Tea Party Movement the other day on his way from Long Island to Midtown. He was white, of course, about 65, and retired from his job as an insurance salesman. He told me how excited he was to be part of the political process for the first time in his life, and how much the policies of the Obama Administration worried him. He indicated that he is sure Obama is both a socialist and a Muslim and that Obama is not now and never has been an American citizen. I looked at him with wide eyes as he spoke, for it was hard to accept that he believed these things with such conviction. He saw my reaction and volunteered: "You probably think I'm an extremist when I say these things, but the people I run into are all convinced that Obama is an untrustworthy liar."

I asked about his major news source and he answered predictably that it was Fox News. But I also asked him what worried him most about Obama and the current direction of the administration. He mentioned that the deficit was out of control and that a situation had been created in which people have come to expect a bailout, even when they get into just a little economic trouble. "It's all out of control," he added. "And it needs to be swept clean!"

I said that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are fueling the deficit as much as anything, but he just shook his head, exclaiming once again, "we need a clean sweep, a whole new way of governing that isn't beholden to the special interests but also doesn't bailout everybody and his uncle."

So, if you want a clean sweep, I asked him with perfect seriousness, do you want to sweep away Social Security and Medicare, too?

He smiled and said of course not. "I paid into these systems, my tax dollars supported them, I want the same privileges that everyone else enjoys."

Sure, I answered, but it is government, really big government, that keeps all this going. Do you think it should be funded privately or invested in the stock market to help keep it in the black?

"I don't know," he responded doubtfully, "after all that has happened to the economy, it could all go up in smoke and there wouldn't be anything left for anyone."

"Exactly," I countered, "which is why we look to government to maintain these things. Some essential things can't be funded privately and cost a whale of a lot of money, but it is in our public interest to be assured that they will be there when we need them."

"Well, I don't disagree with that," he ventured. "But I know that big government has been more of a problem than a solution."

"But," I added, "you have to admit that the group that is probably the most prosperous on average is the elderly because of these entitlement programs that have worked out pretty well for them."

"True, I'm glad to be a beneficiary of them. Medicare has helped our family out more than once in some pretty big ways." He paused and looked rather, well, thoughtful. "I know what you're saying, government isn't the whole problem, sometimes it really has been the solution. But that's the thing, if government is going to take on this much responsibility, we must make sure it is run well by responsible people."

"Okay. So Bush or Obama. Whom would you rather have running these important agencies?"

"Bush was awful, it's true. We almost lost the whole ballgame under him. But is Obama really any better? If he is, it's only by a small margin."

"But the economy is clearly getting better. There is real economic growth now. You can't give Bush any credit for that."

"No, no, you can't. You really can't..." His voice trailed off and his eyes became a bit dazed. "Excuse me, I have some thinking to do. I'm just not sure where I stand after all."

I watched him leave the train for his Midtown stop. He seemed distracted, unable to focus, as if he were going through some sort of identity crisis. Who could blame him, right? Change is hard and sometimes it's really difficult to figure out where you stand. I hope he figures it out, not just for his own sake, but for my sake and yours, too.

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