The long-overdue deal to raise the federal debt ceiling did more than seriously threaten the nation’s credit rating and economic health. It could end up making or break the long-term prospects for the political movement that birthed the fight: the tea party.
No moment has more dramatically illustrated the tea party’s influence in Washington than the contentious fight over raising the federal debt ceiling. Demanding deep cuts in federal spending, no new taxes and a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, tea-party-backed lawmakers forced Republicans and Democrats alike to consider proposals that were unthinkable just a few months ago.
As time ticks away, a chronology of the drama surrounding the fierce negotiations for a plan to raise the debt ceiling.
But as a deal was being crafted in Washington on Sunday, it was unclear whether the public, or even members of the far-flung tea party bloc itself, would hold the fledgling movement responsible for the long-simmering crisis that sent the country to the brink of default. The tea party could see victory quickly turn to defeat if more Americans blame it for pushing its agenda too far.
Even some tea party activists agree. They say the politicians who rejected compromise in the name of tea party principles misread the views of the movement itself. They worry that, if the public blames the tea party for a a near default, the tea party’s influence — and electoral fortunes — will suffer. And those activists worry that such an outcome could end the momentum in Washington to improve the nation’s fiscal health over the long term.
“What Speaker Boehner has proposed — no new taxes, spending cuts that exceed the amount of the debt-limit increase — then we have a victory,” said Henry Kelley, chairman of the Fort Walton Beach Tea Party in Florida. “We have a great victory. I’m a little perplexed at the people [who] have come up with some mystical amount that we have to cut. We didn’t get into this mess overnight, and we can’t get out of it overnight.”
Of course, not all of Kelley’s tea party compatriots feel the same way. Some are urging their congressmen to stand their ground against raising the debt ceiling without more radical cuts to the deficit, which explains why Boehner (R-Ohio) has had such a difficult time rallying his troops in the House and why a deal is being crafted at the last moment.
The debt fight highlights the challenge of the tea party’s transition from political protest movement to long-term governing power. On the one hand, recognizing what’s attainable and being willing to compromise are longtime Washington tactics that are necessary to getting results. On the other hand, cutting deals or waffling on staunch conservative positions were the very demons that tea partyers across the nation promised to exorcise from Washington when they helped sweep a new Republican majority into office last year.
Now, some of those same tea partyers recognize that it’s not so simple.
“I just feel that both parties need to somehow figure out a compromise, a temporary one, to get us through the 2012 election,” said Colen Lindell, 22, an activist with the Aiken County Tea Party in South Carolina who is increasingly worried about the consequences of a default on the economy. “The government needs to cut spending. You just can’t keep running deficits. But I would prefer a deal struck right now.”