The war between the Tea Party and K Street

"Anybody not reading [Tim Carney] regularly doesn't understand what's truly going on in DC or in the GOP," tweeted Michael Needham, CEO of Heritage Action. Since Heritage Action is driving quite a bit of what goes on in the Republican Party these days that's a strong endorsement.

Carney, a columnist at the Washington Examiner and author of "The Big Ripoff" and "Obamanomics," is the foremost chronicler of the idea that Republicans should become a populist party at war with favor-seeking business interests in Washington. And he's argued that that's part of what's going on in this shutdown fight. We spoke on Thursday, and a lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.


What's that pig thinking? (Flickr/CC)

Ezra Klein: You’ve been developing this theme that what’s happening in the Republican Party is a battle between the Tea Party and K Street, which is shorthand for business interests that work in Washington and often support the Republican Party. Expand on this a bit.

Tim Carney: I think, historically, K Street has been the most powerful pull in the Republican Party. It’s also powerful in the Democratic Party. But Republicans don’t have unions as a counterpull. K Street is really the only place for Republicans to go for funding. So if something came up where the free market position was different than the pro-business position Republicans would often side with business. This was the case with TARP and Medicare Part D and big spending in the Bush era.

Now there’s this ideological money coming into Heritage Action and the Senate Conservatives Fund and Club for Growth. They’re donating because of what they believe. And so now there are these elected Republicans who don’t care what K Street has to say about them. The business community says we need to end this government shutdown and stop flirting with the debt ceiling and a lot of Republicans can say they don’t care.

EK: But the money in the Tea Party isn’t exclusively small-donor. The Koch brothers, to use the most high-profile example, are key Tea Party donors and also sit atop a vast empire of business interests that depend, in various ways, on government decisions. So, how do you know you’re not just exchanging one set of business interests for another?

TC: Anytime money is coming from a few sources, it’s problematic. Ideally any movement in any party has a vast variety of sources and money because otherwise they’re afraid of upsetting their funders. If Republicans ended up in a position where they were completely dependent on Koch money that would be very bad for Republicans. Heritage Action gets Koch money. But if you look at Freedom Works, for instance, they’re definitely not getting Koch money. They were created as a splinter off the Koch world. Club for Growth gets a lot of rich conservative investors. They’re not Obama’s 20-year-old small donors, but they’re a different source of money. And I’ll say this: I think ideological money is better than money coming in to support the corporate bottom line.

EK: This is an interesting question. The business money is transactional. It wants a change in law, a tax break, a regulation. But business also has a general interest in stability, in growth. The ideological money is also transactional. It wants something, too. But it often has an interest in conflict, in extreme tactics. The people who donate it are not representative of the average voter. They want something much different than the average voter. So, how do you decide which is better?

TC: I don’t agree. I think ideological money is more likely to be more representative than business money. Business money will have certain things in common. It’s coming from businesses big enough to hire lobbyists, as opposed to just people interested enough to give money. Now, for individuals, it’s so much easier to give money. The Senate Conservatives Fund was just a Web site when it started.

EK: Let me rephrase that. Put aside who’s more representative. What the ideological money wants is very different than what most voters want. Over the period of time that you kind of identify as seeing the rise of this money, Congress in general -- and Republicans in Congress, in particular -- have become less popular than at any time in history. So whatever that money is buying doesn’t represent what most people want.

TC: I do think it’s possible that the rise of the Tea Party groups and similar groups on the left can lead to a lot of instability because the more ideological you are the less open you are to compromise. Democrats handled that by [Rep.] Nancy Pelosi saying she’d work to end the Iraq War, and then she really didn’t. The pragmatists won in the end there.

I think that a lot of the way [Sen.] Ted Cruz and the Tea Party groups have handled the current shutdown fight has been bad politics; they’ve at times mistaken tactics for principles. Cruz has burned bridges he didn’t need to burn. There hasn’t been enough experience among the people planning tactics. So the question I’m curious about is: Can you use this inside-outside game where the Beltway groups sends messages to the grass-roots and the grass-roots applies pressure to lawmakers -- can you use that in a way that’s less combative and more prudent than the groups have been using it in the last months?

EK: You’ve noted that this was a shutdown that began with Tea Party arguments over Obamacare but that the Republican Party’s leaders are now trying to end with more traditional concessions, like repeal of the medical-device tax or budget negotiations. Expand on that a bit.

TC: That’s the standard Republican playbook. Something happens. Conservatives get excited. And K Street walks out with the victory. Now Heritage Action is onto that. They’re saying [that] if all we get out of this is medical device tax repeal then how detached is the Republican Party from the base? I think the medical device tax is bad policy but just doing that would really sow dissatisfaction in the Republican base.

EK: But isn’t a lot of this that these Tea Party groups and politicians basically told the base something that was false? I mean, I’ve been spending a lot of time in conservative Twitter and on Red State and it’s just this weird, bizarro-world march of shutdown triumphs, where the shutdown is going great, Democrats are terrified, Republicans are ascendant. I don’t know if they buy it or if it’s cynical, but they’re setting their people up for fights they can’t win.

TC: When I’m in a hopeful mood, I see this as a pendulum swinging from one extreme to another and coming towards the middle. The old extreme was the Bush way of doing things. Republican leaders told the base they were doing something conservative, and then they’d do something like prescription drugs and sell it to the base as a tactical move to get reelected. That was basically a lie the Republican leadership told the base.

So now, if you try to tell involved conservatives that this is just a difference in tactics, even if you’re right, people are skeptical. [Sens.] Tom Coburn and Mike Lee don’t have seriously different principles; they disagree on tactics. But the Republican base has been burned too may times to believe it even when it’s true. I’m hoping things can swing back to the middle and the methods of guys like Cruz and Mike Needham can move in more tactically intelligent ways then they’re being used right now.

EK: When I came to Washington in the mid-2000s the conventional wisdom was that Republicans had this follow-the-leader approach to politics and Democrats, in the old Will Rogers line, weren’t even an organized party. Now it seems to have flipped. Democrats are comfortable following their leaders, and Republicans seem not just disorganized, but actively suspicious of anything their leaders come up with. It seems sometimes that the way the Tea Party shows it hasn’t sold out is to almost reflexively oppose what [House Majority Leader John] Boehner comes up with.

TC: I think a lot of the base, having gone through the Bush era, has come out with an innate distrust of the establishment. One of the symptoms of this was Christine O’Donnell winning the Republican Party primary in Delaware in 2010. She wasn’t particularly conservative. But she could rail against the establishment. When you saw Herman Cain and Michelle Bachmann and these people rise up, it wasn’t about ideology. It was about being anti-establishment.

The Republican Party needs to abandon some of these identity politics. So I hope guys like Cruz who can really talk to the base can build up a sense of both what the goals are ... and of here’s what’s possible, and move away from the knee-jerk, anti-establishment instincts in the base right now.

EK: So, what do you think their endgame is here?

TC: I think the goal has always been to try and win the shutdown in one way or another. That’s not happening now. The question is can something change so Republicans start winning the shutdown? When you see Boehner talk about punting on the debt limit, remember, he previously wanted to fight on the debt limit. That reflects conservatives believing that maybe if the shutdown keeps going we can win. How that happens is not clear to me. But the necessary condition is that the shutdown somehow needs to be hurting Obama more than it’s hurting Republicans. The reason I’m skeptical of that is Republicans will never get the kind of fair or positive media treatment they’d need for that to be the case.

EK: So, Republicans are trying to split the debt ceiling and the shutdown, as you say. But what comes out of that, exactly? Democrats aren’t going to defund Obamacare.

TC: I think it’s possible then that you see something like an actual strategy or potential path towards victory coming out of this. If it’s not going to be Obamacare, I hope the Republican ask will be something like eliminating a corporate welfare subsidy Obama likes -- something like the sugar subsidy or the subsidies for Boeing. That would show a very new side of the Republican Party, it would weaken Democrats, and it would give something conservatives could bring home to their base.

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Neil Irwin · October 11, 2013

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