Breaking up the Tea Party: Raising the debt ceiling.

The unfolding debt ceiling standoff is exacerbating divisions within the Tea Party movement that have been visible from the outset.  (Confession: I started writing about this end of the Tea Party on election day, 2010.)

The United States has to raise the debt limit by the beginning of August or risk: defaulting on its debts and collapsing this economy and others (worst case, I think) and scaring creditors and increasing the interest it has to pay (likely best case).  Every mainstream politician knows that this increase has to happen, but most would like someone else to take responsibility for doing it.  The preferred alternative is to vote against raising the debt ceiling, knowing that it is going to pass anyway.

But with a Republican House wagged by a freshman Tea Party tail, it won’t be easy, quick, or pretty.

Speaker Boehner

It’s a great situation for negotiating with President Obama, who has consistently demonstrated the willingness to try to find the center no matter how far to the extreme his opponents stake out their opening position; he generally projects the willingness to give away the store, in this case, severe and long term budget cuts, along with more tax breaks.

This, however, is not enough for those Tea Partiers at the grassroots, who oppose any more borrowing or any more taxation.  A collapse or crash of any sort would, paradoxically, vindicate their certainty on this matter.  The last thing they want is a deal.

But the large business interests who bankrolled the Tea Party at the outset have a stake in keeping the government functioning and maintaining existing  credit arrangements.  They want to extract all they can from President Obama and MAKE A DEAL.

At The Hill, Erik Wasson, provides a scorecard for both sides.  The absolutists who oppose any new debt are represented by the Tea Party Patriots, the national group with the strongest grassroots orientation, and the weakest financial infrastructure.  Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, the established groups underneath the Tea Party, and Tea Party Express, the electoral group run by consultants, envision some kind of deal raising the debt ceiling, cuts in spending, and ultimately a budget cap; in Capitol Hill shorthand, this is “Cut, Cap, and Balance.”

Right now, the absolutists give the Congressional insiders a negotiating advantage.  They can say, we’d like to take this deal, but we’ll get killed by the base.  Can’t you do more, Mr. President, to cut this budget?  But they are unlikely to deliver near enough to satisfy that base once they’ve generated enough votes to raise the debt ceiling.

Some Tea Party purists will gulp and try to get more from their Republican allies next time.  Some will be so disgusted that they’ll go home, angry and frustrated by the people they’ve worked so hard to empower.  And some will get angry and active within the Republican  Party, trying to punish deal-makers of all sorts and enforce a vigorous commitment on the elected officials who  purport to represent them.

The relative share of each of these factions will determine not only the future of the Tea Party, but also the longer term prospects of the Republican Party.

About David S. Meyer

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