A tea party debt limit rebellion? Hardly.
For months now, the prevailing narrative of the debt ceiling debate has centered on how tea party freshmen forced the Republican Party into a hard-line position.
And that story, quite simply, it’s wrong. Or at least, it’s not quite so simple.
While the tea party and the larger GOP freshmen class have certainly forced the broader Republican Party to reevaluate its priorities and move toward a more fiscally conservative posture, the conservative opposition to a debt limit deal was never strictly rooted in either the tea party or newly-elected Republicans.
“It’s not the tea party caucus,” House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) told NBC’s Brian Williams in a must-watch look inside Congress. “It would be more what I would describe as hard-line conservatives who want more. I don’t blame them.”
Boehner’s right. And if you look at the final vote on Boehner’s bill last week, you’ll understand.
Of the 22 Republicans who wound up opposing the bill, just 11 were members of the 60-person House Tea Party Caucus, and just ten were freshmen.
Given that more than one-third of the House GOP Conference are freshmen, the fact that 10 of 22 Republican opponents of Boehner’s plan came from that group isn’t all that shocking. If 35 percent of all House Republicans are tea partiers, it’s significant — but not overwhelming — that they made up 45 percent of the opposition.
It’s also apparent that this was more than a tea party vote when you look at the 22 opponents individually.
Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), for instance, is seen as more of a libertarian than a tea partier. Ditto Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). Several other members have been in Congress for years and have been part of the GOP establishment – Reps. Connie Mack (Fla.), Tom Latham (Iowa) and Tim Johnson (Ill.), for instance. They may sympathize with the tea party, but they are not members of it and didn’t come to Congress on the tea party wave. (In fact, Latham is one of Boehner’s closests House friends.)
Others, including Reps. Steve King (Iowa) and Paul Broun (Ga.), were known as conservative firebrands long before the tea party came along. Even Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), a hero to tea partiers, was elected as a down-the-line conservative prior to the tea party’s existence.
So while the tea party was certainly well-represented in the resistance, it wasn’t strictly a tea party rebellion or even a freshman one. Those members who voted ‘no’ may have been emboldened by the tea party resistance, but many of them are quite simply not “of” the movement.
What has all too often occurred in these kinds of debates is that the GOP’s conservative wing gets conflated with the tea party, and the tea party label is applied far too broadly. (We discussed this earlier this year). It’s an easy mistake to make, but it’s also an over-simplification of the tea party’s identity. And once the tea party label is applied to all conservative Republicans, it’s no longer a distinguishable political movement.
These kinds of sentiments have long been a part of the modern Republican Party, and they are being expressed by all kinds of different Republicans now that the stakes have been increased. Just as resistance to government spending gave rise to the tea party movement, it also gave rise to regular Republicans who have decided to draw a line in the sand.
The tea party was certainly part of that. But to say that opposition to the debt deal was strictly a tea party rebellion misses the point.
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