A Smaller Tea Party

Rear view, tea party rally

Thursday’s Tea Party rally drew crowds described as “sparse,” with estimates clustering around 200 people.  Slate‘s David Weigel says that there were four reporters for every demonstrator, and that other journalists were poaching his interviews, trying to find someone to talk to.

This rally was all about the ongoing budget negotiations on Capitol Hill.  During the campaign, Republicans promised $100 billion in cuts, but some of them had second thoughts when they acknowledged they were working on only a portion of the year and that exempting defense, interest payments, Medicare, and Social Security left precious little to cut without antagonizing significant constituencies.  You may want to brag about cutting spending, but probably not cutting student loans or Head Start.  (You’d have to have 500 Corporations for Public Broadcasting to cut to get to $100 billion.)

The last Congress’s failure to pass a full year budget has virtually ensured that budget debates will dominate the political news for most of this year: continuing resolutions for this year sucking up time and space until legislators start work on next year’s budget.

Vice President Biden has engaged in negotiations with the Democratic and Republican leadership, and while the Democrats have agreed to cuts significant enough to rile up their own base, they’re not nearly enough for the base of the Tea Party.  Speaker Boehner wants to cut some kind of deal–and the Republicans have done well in negotiations–but is it enough for his own Republican party?  Failure to reach agreement means a government shut-down.

Thursday’s rally was a signal that the Tea Party stalwarts won’t be satisfied by a compromise.

But how strong a signal?  Turning out a crowd in mid-week on short notice is no easy matter under any circumstances, and it was cold and rainy;  the small crowd demonstrated considerable vigor.   Marin Cogan, at Politico, reports:

When Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) told the protesters that “nobody wants the government to shut down, but if we don’t take a stand, we’re going to shut down the future of our children and grandchildren,” he was interrupted by a tea partier yelling, “Yes we do!”

Republicans in Congress face the difficult problem of balancing the demands of their most intense supporters with finding ways to appeal to the larger public they need to win elections.  (We assume, in addition, that elected officials have their own ideas about particular policies that might benefit the nation.)  The small intense crowd underscored the dilemma.

From 538.com

The Tea Party has never commanded majority support in public opinion polls, and as its advocates must take positions beyond opposing President Obama, its support has faltered and its opposition grown.  The figure on the left, from Nate Silver at the New York Times, shows these trends pretty clearly.

Thirty percent of the population is a large enough faction to pay close attention to–but so is the forty percent plus opposed to the Tea Party.  A government shut-down is unlikely to help the Tea Party gain support.  The Republican Party leadership has to want to hang tough in negotiations and still continue to cut deals.

But everyone doesn’t have the same interests.  Many members of the House of Representatives in particular come from safe districts, and have nothing to gain by reaching agreement with the Democrats.  Michele Bachmann (Minnesota) and Steve King (Iowa) were emphatic that letting the government shut down was far from the worst possible outcome–which would be continuing to spend.  They can get reelected and raise money nationally, appear on talk shows, and continue to serve the true believers.  Those concerned with either winning national elections or responsible governance are considerably less sanguine.

For the Tea Party activists, the larger question is how to employ the powerful, but very limited, support they have without overreaching.   At some point, calling for demonstrations that can draw only small crowds hurts more than it helps.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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