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Up to voters to decide what change means

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The next time you hear a politician running for office demand "change" -- which will probably be in about five minutes -- ask yourself what he or she means.

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He or she will probably say Washington, meaning the federal government, must stop spending your hard-earned money and, beyond that, money the country does not have.

He or she will undoubtedly insist that the federal government has gotten too big, too out of control and too intrusive into everyday life, (meaning government should only get involved in situations that don't actually affect us very much).

But the honest answer to what "change" means will be highly unpopular in many arenas.

It means that the average age for retirement will have to be raised because Social Security is taking more and more of the federal budget. We will each have to work longer (in lower paying jobs) and receive smaller benefits when retirement is finally on the horizon. Those of us who haven't been able to save much will be far poorer than we expected.

Changing the status quo will mean that Medicare will cover fewer health expenses and that those with means won't get the benefits they expected. Doctors' expenses paid by Medicare will be cut.

If the Tea Partiers have their way, which is still an open question, the federal government won't step into "social" issues such as gun ownership, abortion and what constitutes a good education. And the federal government won't step into state immigration laws such as Arizona's -- which authorizes law enforcement to detain people who can't immediately prove their citizenship - or local environmental problems, even where public hazards may exist.

Tea Partiers say they do not want lawmakers to go to Washington to bring home money for local or state projects, no matter how necessary.

Many Tea Partiers want corporations to pay less in taxes, don't want Wall Street to face stiff new regulations and want capital gains taxes slashed.

If the Tea Partiers have their way, there will be no new federal efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions to try to slow down climate change. (However, a new federal study by the respected National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences said the debate is over: Climate change is real, driven mostly by the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation, and that Congress should act quickly.)

Regulations will depend on state and local authorities, who may or may not be corrupt, as federal oversight diminishes and federal tax dollars disappear. Impoverished local jurisdictions will raise taxes or cut spending. Such services as street sweeping, street lights, leaf collection, trash pick-up and landscaping services, including mowing public areas, will be privatized and paid for by citizens or won't exist at all. Children will pay for school buses and full-price lunches or walk and go hungry.

If the Tea Partiers had had their way in recent years, there would be no health care law mandating coverage, more banks would have failed, the stimulus money, which is rebuilding roads and bridges around the nation, would not have been authorized and the country might not be recovering from recession.

The Tea Party movement, which is basically the most conservative element of the Republican Party, is appealing in some ways and frightening in others. There is still no clear answer on what the partiers want to stand for and accomplish to make the country better, only what they oppose. Or, as Sarah Palin says, not just "the party of no, but the party of hell, no."

But then what?

Rand Paul, the Tea party bastion that won the Republican primary for Senate in Kentucky, is honest about what to expect if the partiers take over. "In order to preserve our great nation, tough choices will have to occur. So many Republicans have been elected, and they say, 'We'll cut your taxes, but then we'll bring you home the pork.' It's coming to an end because we can't manage the debt."

It's going to be a fascinating election year, one that forces us to ask ourselves many difficult questions.

-- Scripps Howard columnist McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail her at amcfeatters@nationalpress.com.

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