Imagine the following: President Obama and Speaker John Boehner emerge next week after a series of tense, closed-door meetings to announce a historic deal that cuts the deficit by $4 trillion over the next decade — more than anyone thought possible. Additional goodies are thrown in that Republicans have been clamoring for as well: an enforceable cap on spending and a vote (symbolic, of course) on a balanced budget amendment. The breakthrough? Republicans agreed to raise $1 trillion in new revenue, mostly through closing various tax loopholes and credits but also by allowing the absolute highest end of the Bush tax cuts — those affecting millionaires only — to expire next year.
But that’s not good enough for the Tea Party movement, whose leaders say the GOP sold them out. Activists cry bloody murder. Primaries are threatened. Michele Bachmann stages a sit-in. A week of protests are quickly organized outside the Capitol.
But then a funny thing happens…nothing. A large number of Freshman Republicans vote against the bill in protest, but it passes with near unanimous Democratic support. There’s considerable grumbling in the press until the next week, when Obama proposes something conservatives hate, perhaps a new executive order slowing deportations, and the base rallies to stop him. Polls show conservative Republicans as unified as ever as another round of dismal economic news puts the White House within reach, and soon everyone is too focused on 2012 to care about the last fight. In such a scenario, can the Tea Party remain a credible force?
The debt ceiling vote is the single most dangerous moment for the Tea Party movement since the 2010 election. Like the dog that actually caught the car, conservative activists have won their majority, but they haven’t quite figured out what to do with it. They know they want trillions of dollars — even tens of trillions — in cuts, and say they’ll purge the party a second time if they don’t get them. But with their one big chance fast approaching, leaders are setting the bar so high on a deal that they may compromise their leverage.
The Tea Party’s leading Senator, Jim DeMint (R-SC), threw down the gauntlet this week by warning that anything short of successful passage of a balanced budget amendment would mean electoral apocalypse for the GOP. Several influential Tea Party activists cited DeMint’s “Cut, Cap, and Balance” plan as their absolute floor in interviews with TPM.
“Actually passing the balanced budget amendment, that would have to be part of the deal,” Ryan Hecker, who organized the “Contract From America” pledge that many Tea Party candidates signed in 2010, told TPM. “We’re not going to cut a deal that cuts $2 -4 trillion when raising the debt ceiling will lead to spending far exceeding it.”
Hecker’s position is relatively moderate among Tea Party activists. Polls show overwhelming opposition to raising the debt ceiling, period, and some Tea Party leaders say any increase at all is a failure.
“The bottom line is this: the only way to cut is to impose the debt ceiling cap,” Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler told TPM. “If you have a bad teenager abusing your credit card, you don’t put new rules in place, you take the card away.”
He described DeMint’s “Cut, Cap, and Balance” plan as a “fraud,” noting that the movement is especially skeptical of pledges after being told Republicans would cut spending by $100 billion in the this March’s continuing resolution.
“What’s driving me crazy is the political class is nattering on about a deal, but the American people aren’t buying it,” he said. “This is just more evidence they’re not listening to the people.”
The trouble for Meckler and other Tea Party activists is that every time they lay down a line in the sand and the GOP walks over it unscathed, their credibility withers. House Republicans have already cut significant deals with Democrats twice, on extending the Bush tax cuts and on passing a continuing resolution funding the government. In both instances, Tea Party members in the House like Michele Bachmann and Steve King threatened to kill the legislation with the grassroots’ help. They neither succeeded in blocking the deals or in damaging the party’s hold over conservatives. One more time — on a deal far greater in scope — could permanently curtail their impact.
Democrats consciously exploited this “my way or the highway” mentality during the CR fight. After a large number of Republicans broke with leadership in opposing a short-term measure averting a shutdown, Democrats argued that the only way forward was through moderate Republicans and Democrats, since the conservative wing of the party would reject any deal sight unseen.
They’re now in a similar bind. Republican leaders ditched talks with the White House last week amid talk of infighting over taxes and it’s clear they worry any compromise on the issue will wreck their standing with the base. But unlike many Tea Party lawmakers and activists, every top Republican is against default and facing heavy pressure from their friends in the bond business to come up with a plan before they get anywhere near the ledge. If their choices are between a default crisis that could wreck their standing with independents, a short-term fix that satisfies nobody and boosts the Democrats, and a deal that achieves most of their goals while alienating the Tea Party, then it’s a lot easier to pick the latter if they know that the right will oppose any deal, period.
Andrew Ian Dodge, a Republican Senate candidate in Maine and Tea Party activist, suggested to TPM that Tea Party activists may be more divided on a possible deal than they let on, although tax hikes would mean Republicans get “slaughtered” in 2012.
“If Republicans held the House and Senate with a RINO-proof majority maybe we could get enough spending cuts we wouldn’t need to raise the ceiling, but they don’t,” he said. “Realistically, they have to get as much as they possibly can.”
There’s a good strategic case to consolidate as many wins as possible for the Tea Party as well: their majority may not be around forever. The House GOP’s biggest play to win over the base, Paul Ryan’s budget, is struggling in the polls and drawing a cautious response from the party’s presidential field. If Republicans under-perform in 2012 and their budget proposal takes the blame, GOP leaders might conclude they need to scale back their ambitions to remain politically viable. The last time they aimed this high and misfired under Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, the result was George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” and its giant spending increases.
In the meantime, if Tea Party members want a preview of what it’s like to be an angry activist after your party leaders no longer fear your constant threats, Democrats would be glad to help them out.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.