Same as it ever was?: Budget politics and the Tea Party

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.

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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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8 Responses to Same as it ever was?: Budget politics and the Tea Party

  1. Well, I didn’t want to say this – but I was right.

    Last year we had a discussion about the Tea Party, and many a scribe, including this blog were writing off the Tea Party after the election of 2012. Like I said at the time, “you can’t simply get rid of the Tea Party by writing them out of the future.”

    Since then, we have seen how fervent the attack against the Tea Party has been, since they did not fade into history.

    From IRS bullying to the relentless attacks by the political left from various blogs, pundits and the cable channel MSNBC, the Tea Party was enemy number one. And now, you have the establishment of the Republican Party trying to challenge the Tea Party in primaries in places like Michigan.

    Yet, the Tea Party still wields power in the House of Representatives. They still raise money, and they still fill halls every weekend for meetings.

    What most Americans do not see, is that the Tea Party resembles many political movements that have sprung up across the West in response to The Great Economic Collapse. From the 5 Star Movement in Italy, to the Direct Democracy movement that has sprung up in Ireland, to the Digital Democracy that is slowly taking root in Iceland.

    What these social movements all have in common is a dislike for Modern representational politics, and the Modern era in general. And nothing is more representative of the Modern era in the realm of politics than Big Government; social democracy and the idea of the welfare state.
    In Europe this debate is best described as the, “others know best syndrome.” And in Canada, modern democracy is summed up with the saying, “some are born to lead, while the rest should follow.”

    For many in the West today, democracy is just an election that happens every 4 years or so.
    When you cast your vote, that is the end of your input into the decision making process.Sure the politcal parties in power change, but the agneda’s don’t.

    What I find most interesting about the Tea Party, is if it wasn’t for their influence on the political scene there really wouldn’t be much to differentiate an establishment Republican from an Elitist Democrat in Washington D.C; they each wanted Obamacare; (Don’t listen to the hype about no Republican voting for it) big business wants Obamacare – so they can unload healthcare from their benefit scheme onto the public sector entitlement regime; they each wanted to bailout Wall Street; they each play footsy under the table with K-street; they both protect the NSA (until evidence of its snooping appears in the news), and the list of similarities goes on.

    At least with the Tea party they make politics interesting, interjecting into the debate a feeling that, not everyone in Washington is simply there to keep the status quo going.

    J.R. Werbics is a Canadian writer and philosopher.

    • You were certainly right that something called the Tea Party continued to get credit for influence long past the time I predicted. So I was wrong on this. But:

      What we see as TP now isn’t grassroots mobilization (I don’t know of “filled halls each week”), but several very well-funded groups. Their concerns are different from what was expressed in the grassroots heyday of the movement. TP now seems to be the appellation given vigorous conservatives, including fairly libertarian Rand Paul and social conservatives like Ted Cruz. so, what’s the TP?
      I don’t see connections with comparable movements in Europe or Canada, but I’m interested in any connections you’ve found.
      TPers want direct democracy? I’m not convinced on that; after all, there’s still a campaign to have Senators chosen by state legislators, and much is explicitly anti-democratic.
      Interesting? We agree.

      • I agree that the Tea Party isn’t interested in Direct Democracy. (They never were).

        And in the beginning there were great similarities between the protest group the Tea Party and other groups that organized after the Great Economic Collapse of 2008; from placing blame for the collapse on the political and economic elite of the Western world, to looking for the removal of these people from power, the Tea Party fit right in with their European compatriots.

        But over the past year or so, there has been a divergence between that the Tea Party and groups like Direct Democracy Ireland, or the 5 Star movement in Italy.

        While the Tea Party is slowly bleeding members, the groups in Europe have grown in both membership and influence. For instance, the membership of Direct Democracy Ireland is in the thousands now, and still growing. The 5 star movement in Italy is preparing for the European Parliament elections this spring, and the chances are very good that they will be the dominate party coming out of Italy when all is said and done.

        I also still believe that the Tea Party is a grassroots organization. Just because the mass media focuses on a select few organizations, or a spokesperson or two like Ted Cruz or Rand Paul, it does not mean that the grassroots people see them as their spokespeople. Modern mass media and their journalistic structure only allow for this perspective. The new media and the Internet disprove this one sided view of the Tea Party, as proof, just Google the words Tea Party and break it down by region.

        Each link is the spokesperson for the Tea Party, all different groups of real people with different ideas and ways of doing things. They are the ones who set up the weekend meetings and set the agendas. I can’t see members of the Heritage Foundation running around the country on weekends setting up small town hall meetings.

        J.R. Werbics is a Canadian writer and philosopher.

  2. Do you suggest that there are actual contacts and coordination between populist conservative movements in the US and Europe?

  3. Aurelio F. Todd says:

    • One possible sticking point could arise if Republicans attach the debt limit extension to renewed budget talks or make other demands. Senate leader Harry Reid said Democrats would not open budget negotiations before the government reopens. The president has said as much.

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