Can the Tea Party Party? (Notes on the Budget Agreement)

It certainly looked as though Speaker John Boehner did pretty well in negotiations about the past year’s budget.  At the last minute, the Speaker, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and President Obama announced that they had come to an agreement to keep the government operating, an agreement that all parties claimed to find distasteful.

The details of the agreement have mostly escaped public scrutiny, but there has been a great deal of attention to the amount cut from the budget: $38 billion.  This was more than Speaker Boehner’s initial position on cuts, but less than the rhetorical $100 billion Republicans campaigned on last fall (which, prorated for what’s left of the year, would have come out to $61 billion).  Boehner, like Democratic leaders, now had to convince his caucus and his constituents, that he cut the best deal he could.

These are large and uncharacteristic cuts for Congress, but for Tea Party activists out to balance the budget or shrink government, they’re somewhat less than a drop in the bucket.  There will be a large deficit next year, and there will be taxes; government will continue to operate.

Fifty-nine Republicans in the House refused to support the new budget resolution funding the government, including more than one quarter of the freshman.  Speaker Boehner has to worry about holding his caucus together, and this means maintaining good relations with the Tea Party, or at least a lot of it.

But he also knows that the Tea Party draws support from a little less than a third of the American public–a significant faction of the Republican party, to be sure, but not enough to win national elections.  Boehner, who knows how to read polls and count heads, also knows that cuts in favored programs are likely to threaten his support and mobilize his opposition.  His dilemma is finding a way to keep the caucus together, the Tea Party firmly in the Republican Party, and still pass legislation.

The Tea Partiers dilemma is how to deal with what can only be described as a partial victory.  This is  a common movement story.  (Perhaps only ambiguous defeat is more frequent.)  It’s really the way movement politics works.

In opposition, the Tea Party could articulate diverse–and even contradictory–claims, as long as there was agreement on opposing President Obama, the Democrats, and their initiatives.  Tea Party groups could disagree about salient social issues (same sex marriage, abortion) or foreign policy, and still continue to work together.  Indeed, the label “Tea Party,” and rhetoric about taking America back, could paper over real differences.  Once Tea Party allies had some responsibility for governance, things become much more difficult.  Cutting $100 billion dollars and balancing the budget sounds much more attractive than cutting spending on particular programs, which all have constituencies of support.  And balancing the priorities of groups that all agreed defeating Democrats was top on the list becomes more difficult once that first objective has been achieved.  Paradoxically, every step forward undermines building a coalition that supports the effort.  If progress is being made, moderates doubt the need for more protest, more rallies, more contributions, and more meetings.  And hard core supporters want more from their efforts than the marginal gains and compromises the are endemic to the policy process in America.

Meanwhile, the Tea Party has been so vaguely defined that real tensions between different factions emerge whenever a deal is made.  Social conservatives saw the Republican leadership trade off a series of proposals devoted to restricting abortion for gains on the budget number–again.  They have to wonder if the Tea Party–or the Republican Party–is a viable vehicle for their concerns.

(If the Tea Party turns out to be an uneasy alliance of mainstream Republicans, social conservatives, libertarians, isolationists and imperialists, it’s just a hopped up version of the Republican Party.)

Speaker Boehner is in the middle of it, as he will be again when the vote about raising the debt ceiling returns, and again when the House takes up the next budget.  He needed Democrats in the House to help pass his budget, and they want different things than his Republican base.  The critical test for a party leader is to be able to negotiate for–and sell out–key constituencies–and still maintain their support.

The test for activists is to learn how to claim victories gracelessly, and continue to mobilize activism and press forward.  James Madison designed America to make this extremely difficult.

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About David S. Meyer

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