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How the Tea Party ‘hobbits’ won the debt fight

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The Tea Party came under fire from all sides Friday after House conservatives nearly brought down Speaker John Boehner’s debt-limit bill.  John McCain went to the Senate floor to mock Tea Partyers as “hobbits,” and Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen said Tea Party Republicans “are unfit for governing.”  

What a difference a weekend makes.  The reported debt-limit deal appears to be a victory for the Tea Party. It includes around $1 trillion in spending cuts and creates a special committee of Congress to recommend cuts of $1.2 trillion more. If Congress does not approve those additional cuts by year’s end, automatic spending cuts go into effect. The package sets an important new precedent that debt-limit increases must be “paid for” with commensurate cuts in spending. According to Sen. Rob Portman, a former White House budget director, if we cut a dollar of spending for every dollar we raise the debt limit, we will balance the budget in 10 years — something that even the Paul Ryan budget would not achieve.  And all this is accomplished with no tax increases.

The devil is in the details, of course.  There are troubling reports that the agreement may disproportionately cut defense spending. Conservatives should ensure that the final deal, which is still being hammered out at the time of this writing, does not gut defense. They should scour the legislation to make certain it lives up to its billing.  If it does, the Tea Party has won.

To appreciate the scope of the Tea Party’s victory, consider: When Barack Obama came into office, he went on a bender of government spending. He signed an unprecedented $821 billion stimulus spending bill. His first budget increased federal spending to 27 percent of gross domestic product — the highest level as a share of the economy since World War II.  He then proceeded to ram through Congress Obamacare, a massive government intervention that adds $1.4 trillion in new spending over the next decade alone. Democrats openly talked about passing a “second stimulus.” And five months ago Obama submitted a budget to Congress that tripled the national debt, raising it by $10 trillion over the next 10 years.

Today, no one is talking about tripling the national debt or passing a “second stimulus.”  Congress is about to cut spending by about $2 trillion and put us on a trajectory to balance the budget within a decade. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid complained Saturday evening that Congress has raised the debt limit 74 times since 1962 without conditions.  He is right. This is happening for the first time in history, thanks to the Tea Party.

Consider that less than a week ago, President Obama addressed the nation, demanding that Congress include higher taxes in any debt-limit deal. According to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, the proposed deal has no tax increases. The Tea Party took tax hikes off the table and held the line — another major victory.

The Tea Party is also winning the battle of ideas.  Last week, Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod crowed that the debt-limit battle was shaping up as a “definitional fight” in which voters would see Obama as defending the reasonable center against Republicans who are “pandering to the extremes.”  Well, if Axelrod is so confident that Obama is winning this “definitional fight,” why was the White House so adamant about ducking a second round next year? The president said that “the only bottom line that I have is that we extend this debt ceiling through the next election.” If he were winning the argument, he would have been eager to have this fight again just before the next election. 

Instead of winning over independents with his calls for a “balanced” approach, the president’s support among independents has collapsed. A Pew poll released last week found that a majority of independents now disapprove of Obama’s job performance for the first time in his presidency. Two months ago, Obama held an 11-point lead over a generic Republican.  Today, that lead has vanished. Whatever the president’s strategy was, it failed.

Now comes that hard part: accepting an incomplete victory. Some Tea Party Republicans will be unhappy with the deal because it does not include a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. The fight for a balanced budget amendment must go on. But Tea Partyers should recognize just how much Obama and the Democrats caved: $2 trillion in spending cuts. No tax increases. A new precedent that debt-limit hikes must be accompanied by equal or greater cuts in spending. And the potential for a balanced budget in 10 years.  That the Tea Party accomplished all this in just six months — at a time when the GOP controls one-half of one-third of the federal government — is remarkable. 

The “hobbits” won.

Marc A. Thiessen, a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute and former chief speechwriter to President George W. Bush, writes a weekly online column for The Post.

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