Today’s Courier Herald Column:
The Tea Party is at an interesting moment in time. Nonexistent just 4 years ago, the movement crashed onto the scene in time to change the 2010 elections and stop the Obama administration in its tracks. The various groups operating under the same moniker allied with Republicans to take control of the House, but also took on incumbent Senators with mixed results.
2012 was a more frustrating election year for those who identify with the movement. Despite having a large slate of GOP presidential candidates acceptable to the brand, the party eventually nominated Mitt Romney. Early successes in GOP Senate primaries ultimately resulted in the GOP losing Senate seats. Tea Party backed candidates for House leadership posts to serve in the next Congress were beaten back by more “establishment” candidates favored by leadership.
Meanwhile, the “grand bargains” to solve budget, tax, and deficit issues have been delayed into a situation that is largely the same after the election of 2010. Republicans control the House, the Democrats control the Senate, and President Obama has 4 more years at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
It’s quite natural – and quite acceptable – that Tea party activists had an overall strategy to stall and obstruct from 2010 until the 2012 elections. After all, the “mandate” of the 2010 election was a rebuke of the previous two years. All House Republicans and the larger minority in the Senate could do was contain the situation in a status quo mode so that big picture policy issues – and the direction of the country – could be decided by voters in the November elections. The results of November – that of continued status quo – leave the parties in place, as is.
Republicans in leadership who have decried the “lack of certainty” because of Washington’s changing tax and regulatory environment have decided, more or less, that it is time to govern. It is time for some certainty. They have also acknowledged, quite directly, that holding only the House means that at least for the next two years Washington will not be governed exclusively on Republicans’ terms. Activists within the Tea Party movement, not surprisingly, are not taking this exercise in reality very well.
One of the great difficulties of being in the party that doesn’t hold the White House is that there is no titular spokesperson for the party. The closest Republicans have for that role is Speaker John Boehner, who has the unenviable role of trying to negotiate with the White House for an acceptable fiscal cliff solution while attempting to keep independent minded Tea party activists within the fold. It’s not going well.
While the President seems to be more interested the economics of forcing Republicans to vote for higher tax rates rather than the economics of trying to maximize revenue or minimize deficits, Tea Party activists are bristling at the mere suggestion that federal revenues may be increased, much less than the fact that tax rates may be going up. And, as is custom, there are calls to remove Boehner. This is where Tea Party activists must decide what is their future, and whether it is with the Republican Party.
While various threats to challenge the Speaker are likely to surface, Eric Cantor who generally represents the Tea Party wing of House Republicans within leadership appears fully on board with Boehner. Georgia’s Tom Price who challenged one of Boehner’s leadership preferences in caucus elections spent Monday putting down rumors that he is running for Speaker. There does not appear an appetite from within the caucus to undercut the Speaker while he attempts to negotiate, and in effect, govern.
In response, Tea Party activists are now circulating an article from RedState.com suggesting that 16 conservatives need to withhold their vote for Speaker when the House re-convenes in January. Their reasoning? “If no nominee for speaker receives 218, the House remains speakerless—as it did during parts of the Civil War.”
This approach is not constructive and would spell doom for the Republican Party and ultimately the Tea Party. The House is the one part of government which Republicans control. Should this tactic be advanced, it would demonstrate that Republicans can’t even manage to govern within the confines of what they can control.
The message it would send to an electorate that re-elected Barack Obama would be more striking than any caricature of the Tea Party currently promoted by the most partisan MSNBC commentator. It would prove that Republicans aren’t interested in governing, but only obstructing. This is not a risk worth taking.
It’s time the Tea Party takes a long look at itself and the state of their movement. They have proven that they can be effective agents for change. They have also proven that they can force decisions that cost Republicans seats – which makes the Democrats that they fight grow stronger.
The Tea Party needs to spend more time on developing a message of why smaller government is better, and how that would work for Americans who currently depend would be better off with less – and what that transition would look like.
That’s no small nor easy task. Obstructionism and political isolationism are much easier. But the only majority that that will result from Tea Party activists abandoning their party already in a minority negotiating position will be that of Democrats.