Successful politicians sell out the movements that give them leverage, visibility, and power. Until yesterday, when the House of Representatives passed a rather mundane two year budget bill that disappointed virtually everyone, the House Republican leadership, particularly Speaker John Boehner, was having a very difficult time being successful. It wasn’t just that Congress couldn’t pass very much or that Speaker Boehner couldn’t really negotiate on anything because he couldn’t deliver the votes of his own caucus. More than that, every so-called Tea Party move seemed to cost the Republican Party public support. Speaker Boehner publicly acknowledged being dragged to lead a government shut-down just weeks ago, a strategy that played out badly for everyone, but particularly the Republicans.
The shut-down approach undermined as a tactic for at least the near future, House Budget Chair Paul Ryan entered negotiations with his Senate counterpart Patty Murray with reduced leverage and a strong determination to reach an agreement. It was pretty obvious than any settlement between the two would be some version of the split the difference compromises that characterized most institutional politics in American history. And so it did.
Conservative interest groups (including Heritage Action and FreedomWorks) saw this coming way in advance, and began firing on the agreement long before it was settled. Mainstream Republicans have been trying to find a way to manage the Tea Party since 2010, and bits of evidence that they might be able to do so are just emerging. When the House voted overwhelmingly (332-94) to pass the compromise budget agreement, those Republicans finally got something to be optimistic about–even as they bemoaned the deal. Mainstream Democrats moaned too, but saw the prospects of the resurrection of old style institutional politics.
Emboldened, pissed off, and buttressed by the (at least momentary) support of most of his caucus, Speaker Boehner fired on those interest groups, announcing the end of their undue influence on his members. (Remember, he said, these are the folks who brought you the shutdown–which I warned against.) Mainstream media portrayed the speaker as standing up to the Tea Party, but it’s not clear there was anything approaching a grassroots movement ever involved in this round of debate. Although the Tea Party Patriots national office decried the budget and Boehner in particular (“Boehner declares war on the American people“), in doing so she looked very much like the leadership of those well-funded, but not broadly supported, Washington, DC interest groups.
The question now is whether those conservative groups can keep their promises and remobilize a movement that will hold Republicans who want to govern accountable. Organizers were able to use the financial bail-outs of 2008-09 and the passage of the Affordable Care Act to stoke the grassroots into action. I doubt that the agreement to pass a budget and keep government open can do the same thing, but we’ll see.