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.
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.”
So would most Americans, which underscores the peril to the tea party of being perceived as an obstacle to a deal. Yet according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted in mid-July, 77 percent of respondents thought Republicans were doing too little to compromise in the debt-ceiling debate. Making the leap to blame the tea party directly isn’t hard: Of the 22 Republicans who voted against Boehner’s debt proposal late Friday, 13 have a tea party affiliation, such as an endorsement by a tea party group.
Much of the challenge for the tea party as its followers hope to remain a long-term force lies with the group’s decentralized nature. It is a point of pride for thousands of activists drawn to rallies and marches and local tea party meetings starting in the early months of 2009 that no one speaks for them, no national leaders control them and no single set of principles can be assigned to them.
Several local tea party activists, for instance, took very different views from that of Lindell and Kelly. Rhonda Deniston, 45, who leads the group Stop Taxing Us in Carlsbad, Calif., said tea-party-aligned members of Congress should stand their ground and never agree to raise the debt ceiling. Karl Peters, 52, with the Florence, S.C., group Educated Voter, said he would like to see primary challenges against the Republicans who supported Boehner’s plan to avoid default, because it didn’t go far enough.
“If we give in now and compromise on something that’s useless and doesn’t accomplish any of our goals, what’s the point of that?” Peters said.
One consequence of the tea party’s lack of central organization is that anyone can claim to be part of the tea party — or claim to speak for it. And a number of national leaders have done exactly that. Judson Phillips of Tea Party Nation urged Republicans not to compromise. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin posted a message for congressional freshmen on Facebook in which she said, “Everyone I talk to still believes in contested primaries.”
“I’m telling you, all these guys who claim to represent the tea party — they do not,” said Adrian Murray, 56, a small-business owner and activist with the Fort Worth 9-12 Project. “What they do is they stake their positions on what they think the popular sentiment is. But I believe they represent a shrinking demographic.”
Murray said he was a “line-in-the-sand guy” a year ago, too. But after watching the standoff in Wisconsin this past winter between Republicans and Democrats over the state budget and the rights of public-sector unions, he came to a new conclusion that standing one’s ground is not always the way to get things done.
Since then, Murray has written a book called “Common Ground” and is starting an organization by the same name in an effort to encourage people of differing political views to work together.
“I started thinking about all the speeches that I’d given and all the policies and stances I’d taken,” Murray said of the peak of his tea party activism. “I was preaching to the choir. It didn’t advance the cause at all. Yeah, I can give a speech and make a crowd go crazy, but what does it do? We’re past that. It’s time really to move this to the next stage and do what’s best for the country.”