A remarkable thing happened Thursday morning in Washington. House Speaker John Boehner told tea party conservative groups exactly what he thought of them.
"Frankly I just think they've lost all credibility," Boehner said of groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Club for Growth, who have come out in opposition to the budget compromise deal expected to be voted on later Thursday in the House. "I don't care what they do."
Boehner's rebuke of these outside groups is the culmination of several years of legislative setbacks orchestrated by a tea party wing that views any form of compromise as capitulation. From the thwarted "Plan B" during the fiscal cliff debate to the farm bill to relief funds for Hurricane Sandy victims to the government shutdown, Boehner has watched with increasing frustration this year as groups like Heritage, the Club and Senate Conservatives Fund have driven an immoveable wedge within the House Republican conference.
Boehner's outburst was his second in as many days -- on Wednesday he accused these groups of "using our members and.....the American people for their own goals" -- and is simply the latest sign that the GOP establishment has had just about enough of tea party conservatives. In late November, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who faces a primary challenge from his ideological right in 2014, said that "the Senate Conservatives Fund is giving conservatism a bad name," adding: "They’re participating in ruining the brand." And, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the author of the latest budget compromise and the party's 2012 vice presidential candidate, lashed out at Florida Sen. Marco Rubio Thursday morning for opposing the deal; "Read the deal and get back to me," Ryan told Rubio during an appearance on MSNBC's "Morning Joe".
What explains the Republican establishment's newfound bravery when it comes to tangling with the tea party? Two big things:
1) The tea party is at historic lows in terms of public opinion. In new Gallup polling, just 30 percent of people view the movement favorably; even one in three self-identified conservatives say the dislike the tea party. Condemning unpopular things is, you guessed it, popular.
2) There's safety in numbers. McConnell threw the first stone. But now that other prominent figures within the party are coming forward to say, essentially, enough is enough, it's now become less politically risky to add your voice to that chorus.
While many within the Republican establishment will applaud Boehner, McConnell and Ryan for their willingness to take on the tea party, the fight is not without potential negative consequences for them. While the tea party is not as popular -- even among Republicans -- as it once was, in low turnout GOP primaries it remains a force to be reckoned with. And, with seven of the 12 Republican incumbents in the Senate set to face a primary challenge from their right, there will ample opportunity for groups like the Club For Growth, Heritage, Americans for Prosperity and the Senate Conservatives Fund to prove that crossing them is a very bad idea.
Look to the May 20 primary fight between McConnell and businessman Matt Bevin and the June 3 race between Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran and state Sen. Chris McDaniel to see whether the new confront-the-conservative-groups strategy can work. If McConnell loses or even comes close to losing, there will be absolute panic within the ranks of Senate Republicans -- panic that will only increase if Cochran falls. (To be clear, Cochran has a much better chance of losing than does McConnell.)
This is why we have elections. Republican primary voters will get a series of chances to show which side of this fight they come down on. But make no mistake: The fight is now joined in earnest.