The Tea Party doesn’t listen. It talks.

September 28, 2013

The theme of Ted Cruz’s filibuster this week was “Make D.C. Listen.” But Cruz himself doesn’t listen; he talks. And talks. And talks. It’s no wonder the Texas senator can’t hear what the public is actually saying.

A recent CNBC poll asked whether the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act should be defunded. By 44 percent to 38 percent, Americans said no. Then the pollsters asked specifically about Cruz’s plan: forcing a shutdown to defund Obamacare. The public rejected that idea 59 percent to 19 percent. But Cruz isn’t listening.

Public opinion on Obamacare is complicated but generally consistent. The law is unpopular. But a solid majority wants the Republican sabotage to end.

poll this month from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 69 percent of Americans, including many who disapprove of the law, want Congress to “make the law work as well as possible.” Only 23 percent of Americans say Congress should try to “make the law fail.”

The Republican Party, however, has focused like a laser on making the law fail. Congressional Republicans have withheld crucial implementation funds and sent letters to everyone from the National Football League to local health groups warning them against helping with the rollout. Republican governors have, for the most part, refused to set up health-care exchanges or participate in the Medicaid expansion authorized by the law.

And now Republicans in Congress are considering shutting down the entire government or defaulting on the national debt in order to prevent Obamacare’s implementation. They’ve gone from trying to make Obamacare fail to threatening to make the country fail.

In the wake of his 21-hour quasi-filibuster on the Senate floor, Republicans have made a scapegoat of Cruz. They’ve pretended he’s an irresponsible bomb thrower causing problems for an otherwise responsible party. Anyone who believes that should read the House Republicans’ new debt-ceiling proposal.

In return for a one-year suspension of the debt ceiling, House Republicans are demanding a year-long delay of Obamacare, adoption of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s tax-reform plan, construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, more offshore oil drilling, more drilling on federally protected lands, looser regulations around ash coal, a suspension of the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of carbon emissions, more power over the regulatory process in general, reform of the federal employee retirement program, changes to the Dodd-Frank Act, more power over the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s budget, repeal of the Social Services block grant, expanded means-testing for Medicare benefits, repeal of the public health trust fund and more.

Yes, that’s right: “and more.”

If this policy grab bag sounds familiar, it’s because Republicans have proposed it all before. It was, more or less, Mitt Romney’s agenda during the 2012 presidential campaign. The voters rejected it -- another message, it seems, that Republicans in Washington somehow failed to hear.

Not only are the policies familiar, but so is the playbook. In 2011, Republicans employed similar tactics, threatening both to shut down the government and breach the debt ceiling if President Obama didn’t agree to their demands. How did the public view this? According to a Gallup poll, congressional approval hit a record low. Another missed message.

The problem here isn’t that Republican leaders didn’t hear about the election results or can’t read polls. Cruz’s Republican colleagues in the Senate begged him to back off his crusade. He dismissed them as out of touch. House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor have desperately sought a way to avoid another ill-fated showdown and keep the government functioning. They don’t have the votes.

Washington's tea party Republicans, in other words, aren’t listening to the public, and they’re not listening to their own leaders. So who are they listening to? One another, mostly.

Tim Carney, a well-sourced columnist for the conservative Washington Examiner, wrote an unusual column this week titled “Ted Cruz Pushes Senate to Listen to the People.” Carney portrayed Cruz as a committed populist who has “infuriated his fellow Republicans -- by going over their heads and straight to the voters.”

What Carney describes, however, isn’t anything like a politician communing with the electorate. “I call it the Tea Party Whip Operation,” he wrote. The operation “involves outside groups such as the Senate Conservatives Fund, Heritage Action, the Club for Growth, and FreedomWorks.”

Carney goes on to detail the success of these interest groups during the debate on expanding background checks for guns. It’s a particularly telling example because the Senate background-check legislation had overwhelming public support. “Cruz publicly put out a letter -- timed to just before congressional recess -- calling on senators to prevent a gun control bill from even coming to the Senate floor,” Carney said. “Grassroots conservatives read the letter and pressured their senators to sign on.”

So conservative interest groups in Washington mobilized grass-roots conservatives to persuade conservative senators to defeat enormously popular legislation.

This is the strange world much of the Republican Party now inhabits. The “voice of the people” is the one they hear when they whisper into one another’s ears. And they have just enough power to force the rest of the country to listen to it, too.

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Dylan Matthews · September 28, 2013