What the Tea Party won; what it cost

As we discussed last week, professional politicians sell out movements.  Speaker John Boehner has worked hard throughout the negotiations to play to the most committed elements of the Tea Party in the House of Representatives, advocating positions that he would have previously described as outlandish.  No doubt to his surprise, President Obama validated those positions, and consistently emphasized all that he was conceding in response to the Republicans’ intransigence.  Increasing the debt ceiling, normally a big story for a day or two, became a weeks-long drama that produced large commitments to cut spending and endorse historically low tax rates.

Speaker Boehner is now taking a deficit reduction deal back to his caucus that omits some of the sweeteners he put in the House version to win Tea Party votes.  The cuts, conservative Congressmen have said, are not steep enough, reliable enough, nor are the prohibitions against taxation and future spending strong enough.  But, seeking to claim victory with an ounce of humility, Boehner has emphasized how much the center has moved in the last few years: “It shows how much we’ve changed the terms of the debate in this town.”  (New York Times.)

He’s right.  The entire debate was about how much, how quickly, and how rigidly to cut government spending–all framed in general, not in terms of the specific programs that will fall under the knife.  This, the Tea Party won.

Boehner knows, however, that he won’t keep all the Republican votes he was initially able to cobble together, and replacements will have to come from the Democrats.  Tea Party loyalists in the House–and especially outside the Capitol–will scream betrayal.  They didn’t mobilize and work hard for a better deficit deal, but to end politics as usual.  They got a lot–but much less than they imagined, wanted, or were promised.

This is the standard social movement story in America, repeated on Politicsoutdoors for all sorts of movements.

But what did this Tea Party victory cost the movement? the Republican Party?  the country?

I won’t go on here about the impact of spending cuts during a period of extremely slow growth and very high unemployment.  There are plenty of good reports on macroeconomics on the web.  Here, it’s just worth noting that wise policy was not the prime concern of anyone in the last rounds of debt ceiling negotiations.

The deficit negotiations have defined the Tea Party far more narrowly than the activists who launched the movement just two years ago would have liked.  At the national level, groups are concerned with ending government regulation, stopping health care reform, and generally limiting government.  At the grassroots, activists have championed socially conservative agendas (against abortion, same sex marriage, and stem cell research), vaguely defined Constitutional principles, nativist anti-immigration stances, and, of course, ending health care reform.  All of these, sometimes contradictory, positions, have been flattened into a much sharper (and narrower) anti-spending, anti-tax polemic.  It’s hard to see all of the Tea Partiers signing onto this slighter agenda, and it’s hard to see unity on any of the broader elements of the program/s.

Some Tea Party groups are promising primary challenges to Republican representatives (all conservatives at this point) who refused to toe the line on all aspects of the debt reduction plan.  Others expect to endorse the politicians who stayed true to 90+% of the agenda and were, arguably, more effective.  Likely even more will just stay home.

Big business was behind the large organizations at the start of the Tea Party.  We’ve seen the emergence of a rift between the grassroots and those funders, who need, but distrust, the populist activism that promotes their interests.

And the Republican party?

Speaker Boehner, effectively counting the votes in his caucus, took the Republican party in Congress further to the right than it’s been in generations.  This will be an electoral liability next year, and he’s well aware of this.  The Tea Party has never commanded a majority of the electorate, although it certainly is influential in Republican primaries.

Now, the future of the Party might be seen as a choice between Mike Lee and Lisa Murkowski.  Senator Lee, from Utah, defeated incumbent conservative Republican Robert Bennett for the Republican senate nomination.  He is not interested in cutting deals or compromise, but in articulating the strongest, sharpest positions possible, speaking truth to power.  Senator Murkowski, formerly known as a reliable conservative, lost a primary challenge to a Lee-like opponent, Joe Miller, then defeated him running as an independent.  Since then, she has been behaving like, well, an independent who doesn’t owe the Republican Party much at all, and displays no fealty to the Tea Party movement.  Ostensibly, she can be interested in good (conservative) government.

Senator Murkowski is an ongoing insult and provocation to the Tea Partiers, but a Republican Party that can win majorities and govern will be more heavily weighted to people like her than to people like Senator Lee.

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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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One Response to What the Tea Party won; what it cost

  1. Pingback: Can the Tea Party reelect Barack Obama? | Politics Outdoors

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