A win is a problem for a social movement. Activists never get all they want, and smaller reforms can make it hard to get supported riled up and active. At the same time, movement organizers need to show that they can be effective in order to get people to continue to ante up their time, money, and attention.
Every response from government is a chance for activists to screw up: seeking to demonstrate their power, they claim credit for policy changes far smaller than they promised; seeking to emphasize their purity and anger, they show how ineffective they’ve been.
The challenge is to find a way to claim credit for partial reforms, while emphasizing just how much more work is to be done: We are powerful, and we’ve got a long way to go. The trick is to claim credit gracelessly.
The debt deal provides a serious test for the Tea Party. Recall that some Tea Party leaders, in and out of Congress, railed against any increase in the debt limit, and that the deal Congress approved makes serious, but marginal, changes in spending for most programs. (Anyone who looks at the numbers knows that reducing spending on health care–we spend roughly twice as much as any rich country per person, half government and half private. And we don’t get better results.)
When we look at Tea Partiers and Republicans speaking about the debt deal, we get a sense of how they’re trying to walk this balance.
I think Newt Gingrich, more accomplished rhetorically than in any other endeavor, did the best from an activist view, acknowledging the inherent contradictions in what he has to say. Speaking on O’Reilly, Speaker Gingrich said that Tea Party forced President Obama to back down from his demands for taxes on the wealthy, and that this partial victory could be the foundation for further action:
First, the Tea Party members should feel really good — the left is mad at [Obama] for the right reason —they were effective, they were successful. We just had an extraordinary moment where a very left-wing president blinked, and that would not have happened without the tea party. Now they have a great opportunity to push to pass a balanced budget amendment by the end of the year — that could be a historic effort for the tea party to focus on.
Second, Washington has to shift and focus on the economy — we are in very grave danger of sliding into an even deeper depression — and I think there is no sign right now that Washington understands that this is a temporary moment, Ok, we’ve all focused on the debt ceiling; we’re about to launch a big five- or six-month fight — and it’s going to be a fight. This was not the end — this was the beginning of a fight over the whole nature of what happens next.” (Newsmax)
Elected officials, like Senators John McCain and Orin Hatch, who formerly might have tried to represent a sensible center, were careful to give the Tea Party credit for shifting the debate. Their rhetorical deference represents their ongoing efforts to avoid alienating the increasingly far right wing of their party.
On Fox, Senator McCain said, “I agree the tea party movement has had an effect in that I don’t think without the tea party we would have had an agreement. I think the tea partiers can claim a lot of credit….the president had to back down…[and give up] “his primary position that we had to have tax hikes.” (Politico)
Outside government, however, activists were quicker to feed the outrage rather than the sense of efficacy. Tea Party Nation’s Judson Phillips said the Republican leadership “totally sold the tea party and the conservative movement out.” (Roll Call) “We put them in power and now we’re asking ourselves, ‘Why did we do that?’”
Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots (who, unlike Phillips, can actually claim a political following) said the deal was “destroying America’s future (Chicago Sun-Times).
The elected officials want Tea Partiers to feel a sense of power and to focus on the upcoming elections. The outside organizers want their supporters angry and distrustful of elected officials who would channel activist energies for their own purposes, and to support the cause, rather than any candidate.