We are on the verge, it seems, of a deal on the debt ceiling that would embody two essential goals of the Tea Party and the GOP more generally: no new tax revenues and significant spending cuts equal to or greater than the size of the debt-ceiling increase. The White House, liberal pundits and most Democrats will tell you that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is in the grips of “Tea Party extremists” or that the freshmen Tea Partyers are holding him hostage. But what the debt-ceiling debate has shown us so far is that the “Tea Party” is no longer a designation that has a single meaning. Or put differently, there are very different kinds of Tea Partyers.
Of the 22 Republican “no” votes on Boehner’s debt-ceiling plan on Friday, by my count only 10 were freshmen, and of those, four were South Carolinians under the sway (or in fear of) Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). Recall that there were 87 Republican freshmen elected in 2010. The vast majority of them voted with the speaker. A number of the “no” votes were longtime professional politicians who may identify with the Tea Party but can hardly be cast as products of the Tea Party, including Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) and Rep.Connie Mack IV(R-Fla.).
In other words, the hard-core obstructionists who refuse to say yes to anything and were willing to sink their own speaker were not all Tea Partyers, and all Tea Partyers did not line up with the extreme obstructionists.
This, of course, reminds us that the “Tea Party”is not a unified organization. There is no central control. There is no single leader. And there certainly is no rule book for governance. “Tea Party” is a useful term for grassroots proponents of fiscal conservatism, but it is hardly, as the left portrays it, an organized mob roaming through Congress out to destroy everything in its path.
Certainly, there are hard-core Tea Partyers who refuse compromise as a matter of principle. But there are many more Tea Partyers who are determined to keep moving the ball in their desired direction, that is work on reducing government spending and debt, keeping taxes low and restraining the reach of the federal government.
After an interview earlier this year with conservative veteran Vin Weber, I wrote:
As for the Tea Party and the media obsession with the differences between it and the rest of the GOP, he says, “I must tell you I find the whole discussion about the Tea Party annoying.” He makes the point that there is no Tea Party per se. “There are over a thousand groups,” he says. He points to a small gathering in Minnesota this weekend. “Are they the Tea Party? Is Dick Armey’s Freedom Works the Tea Party?” He stresses, “There is nothing that comes close to a unified organization.” In the House he notes that there are 10 to 15 new Republicans who have direct Tea Party ties. “And 60 to 70,” he says, “are just conservative Republicans.” What is going on, he explains, is “a grassroots conservative movement” centered on core economic issues.
The fight over the debt ceiling has proved him right.
The grassroots movement that began in opposition to the Obama presidency and what was/is seen as a lack of fiscal responsibility in Washington, D.C., has produced its share of failed candidates (e.g. Sharron Angle) and entirely intransigent (and ineffective) lawmakers. But the same can be said of liberalism. Nevertheless, the grassroots movement has also moved the country in a conservative direction on fiscal matters (we are now arguing about how to structure the second round of huge spending cuts) and produced a slew of new congressmen and senators who fully understand that politics is the art of the possible.
To criticize and even condemn a brand of politics that perpetually makes perfection the enemy of the good is not to attack “the Tea Party.” To the contrary, such a critique implicitly recognizes that there is a difference between mindless opposition on one hand and effective Tea Party activism and governance on the other. Those who embrace the goals of fiscal conservatism should shun the former and encourage the latter. Otherwise, their goals will go unrealized.