Yesterday, Cato Institute senior fellow Michael Tanner made the case at National Review Online that the Tea Party is waning. He identified what he sees as the main problem: the Tea Party is getting mixed up in social issues, which is not only hurting their brand but also driving away libertarians.
It is true that on Capitol Hill, the Tea Party has lost a great deal of influence. Since September, the Tea Party has seen the government reopen without slowing – never mind stopping – the Affordable Care Act. The debt ceiling has been dissolved and raised, respectively, and a budget deal that neutered sequester got bipartisan support.
But I have my doubts that it’s due to a sudden upswell of social conservatism among Tea Party activists. Tanner cites socially conservative comments from Judson Phillips of Tea Party Nation and Scottie Neil Hughes of Tea Party News Network, but then ties my former employer Tea Party Patriots (TPP) into his assessment by noting that “during last summer’s congressional town-hall season, Tea Party Patriots was organizing not against Obamacare or raising the debt ceiling, but against immigration reform.”
However, immigration reform is certainly an economic and spending issue as well as a social issue. Furthermore, when the immigration debate started a senior Capitol Hill press staffer asked me about TPP’s possible involvement in the discussions. I was told in no uncertain way by my boss that we were not going to get involved at the time, and we did not – until the costs started coming to light, and constitutional questions were raised.
So why is the Tea Party losing influence in Washington? While Monday Morning-quarterbacking is admittedly easier than being in the trenches during tough times – punditry is a field that does not seem to punish wrong conclusions – I see two major causes.
The first is by far the most important: the leaders in both political parties want power. They may disagree on how to garner the power for themselves, but they would rather gush over a terrible budget deal because suddenly everyone is singing “Kumbaya” than actually do what’s right, constitutional, and best for the country.
The Tea Party threatens that power, and for a while GOP leaders – and some Democrats – were too scared of Tea Party activists to revert fully back to power-grabbing form. Now, however, they are no longer scared of the Tea Party, and thus the grassroots have lost power on Capitol Hill.
Why they’re not scared brings us to the second reason the Tea Party has lost influence: Several tactical errors in the last 14 months gave GOP leaders all the excuse they needed to brush off the Tea Party and revert back to form.
Consider the following:
In early 2013, fiscal cliff legislation was passed into law. It was a pretty awful piece of legislation, complete with a one-year farm bill, delay of the sequester’s impact, and $67 billion in special interest tax loopholes. It also, most importantly, raised taxes on the American people.
Tea Party activists went into attack mode, with Erick Erickson declaring the whole disaster to be “the McConnell tax hike.” Yet what was often ignored was how, due to the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and the unwise payroll tax cut, taxes were set to skyrocket. So, yes, the fiscal cliff legislation raised taxes, but thanks to the GOP the damage was somewhat limited. Not as limited as it should have been, but limited.
In June of last year, conservatives held the line and voted down the farm bill. Unfortunately, this strong stance was not backed by better legislation that had the backing of a conservative coalition. Which meant things went exactly as Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) predicted at the time: A very bad farm bill in June turned into an atrocious one earlier this year, and passed into law.
Should conservatives have held the line in June? I’m not such a Monday Morning quarterback that I would feel comfortable saying one way or the other. But given the way the bill’s underlying laws are written, unraveling the mess takes time, and multiple reform efforts. So it would have been good to see a more comprehensive strategy be brought to the fore by its opponents, instead of simply saying “no” to the bill that was brought forward. (To his credit, Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS), a leading opponent of the bill, did have his own plan drawn up and proposed.)
Finally, the partial government shutdown is what really did the Tea Party in on Capitol Hill. For two months, Republicans were attacked, and told if they didn’t stand with Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) they were RINOs. This is opposed to being encouraged to stand with the Tea Party and fight for fairness for the American people because President Obama was delaying the law’s effects for his allies.
Even Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), one of the strongest fiscal conservatives in the last 20 years, was suddenly in the RINO category to many. All because, in many cases, of a difference of opinion on tactics, not principles.
And so the government partially shut down – fully 17 percent, which is pitifully small to everyone but the mainstream media and opportunistic politicians – and public opinion quickly turned against the Tea Party. The government reopened, the ACA continued to be implemented, and the establishment GOP finally had an excuse to push the Tea Party aside and ignore its principles and influence.
Could things have gone differently? Certainly, GOP power players prefer to spend, spend, spend. But what if the Tea Party had worked with Speaker Boehner on acceptable compromises on the fiscal cliff, the farm bill, and the shutdown?
For example, instead of fighting tooth-and-nail over fully delaying the ACA, conservatives could have pushed for a delay of the individual mandate, keeping the sequester in place, and eliminating the ACA congressional loophole. These would have had full GOP support, likely gotten passed into law, and had the GOP and conservatives focused on the debt ceiling.
Such a tactic would have also given the Tea Party the ability to say to Boehner, “Look, we compromised three times. We played your game. Now play ours, and don’t raise the debt ceiling.” And he would have listened, like he did during the partial shutdown – except with better results.
I would love to see a hard line taken on every issue, but that simply isn’t where things are in D.C. The farm bill is a convoluted mess that takes time to unravel, and the votes and public opinion weren’t there on the ACA/shutdown fight. The country won’t win on a hard-line approach to those situations, especially when small to medium chops can be made that would move the ball int the right direction.
However, on some issues, hard-line approaches are wise on both principles and tactics. With the debt ceiling, for example, conservatives should take a stand. No matter what the political consequences end up being, cutting hundreds of billions of dollars in spending to balance the budget – which is what would happen if the debt ceiling was not raised – is worth the consequences in media attacks and complaints from politicians.
Again, the biggest problem here is the political class, its love for power, and its distaste for fiscal responsibility. The Tea Party made some tactical errors, and this gave the power players in the GOP an excuse to ignore the Tea Party. Of course, these same politicians, lobbyists, and media folks also ignore what Breitbart’s Matthew Boyle pointed out a couple of months ago: If it wasn’t for the Tea Party, gun control and amnesty would be law instead of largely editorial page wishes at the New York Times.
But, hey – that doesn’t fit into Washington’s “country bumpkins” image of Tea Party activists.