Monday, December 30, 2013
The Tea Party's Strategic Ineptitude
When the Tea Party surfaced in 2009, I backed the movement’s general philosophy and political objectives. However, following the historic Republican victory in the 2010 elections, which was undeniably driven by Tea Party energy and shrewd grassroots organizing, I became a critic of the movement’s lack of strategic savvy engendered by a false sense of invincibility and hubris.
Since then, the Tea Party’s popularity has declined precipitously, and its vaunted grassroots energy and mobilization efforts could deliver neither the Senate nor the White House for the GOP in 2012. (Yes, I know all about how Mitt Romney wasn’t a true conservative, and therefore couldn’t energize the base to turn out for him as it would have for a true believer. The scapegoating of Romney for GOP misfortunes is belied by the hundreds of millions of dollars conservative groups poured into electing Romney, by the extreme desire of conservatives to defeat Obama, by talk radio’s “we must vote for Romney” consensus, and by the fact that Tea Party candidate Richard Mourdock, who unseated the “Establishment-RINO” Richard Lugar in the GOP primary, lost in solidly Republican Indiana.)
The Tea Party’s low approval ratings can certainly be attributed in part to the national media’s concerted efforts to vilify these patriotic Americans. And while the media’s role in the Tea Party’s receding fortunes should not be understated, neither should the shocking strategic ineptitude of the Tea Party and its major supporters in non-profits, in Congress, and in talk radio.
To better understand this ineptitude and without revisiting the original rationale behind the decision to tie defunding of Obamacare to funding the government, let’s look at the aftermath of the budget deal reached in October to end the government shutdown, and the long-term budget deal struck in December.
When the Senate and House overwhelmingly voted to approve a deal to raise the debt ceiling and reopen the government, the self-anointed leaders of the conservative movement immediately denounced Republicans for acquiescing to a budget agreement that did nothing to undermine Obamacare.
The harsh criticism was all too predictable and sweepingly counterproductive to the wellbeing of not just the Republican Party (who are after all part of the problem, according to our conservative overlords) but the conservative movement as a whole.
If the leaders of the Tea Party and the conservative grassroots, well-meaning conservatives like Jennie Beth-Martin or the Madison Project’s Drew Ryun , were strategically savvy, they would have praised Speaker Boehner for holding the line for as long as he could and for doing everything in his power to do something which everyone knew was impossible: defunding Obamacare through the CR process.
Instead, Jennie Beth Martin, Mark Levin, and the other stalwart guardians of the conservative ideology unleashed a barrage of attacks against Speaker Boehner, Republican Senators, and anyone else they arbitrarily deem to be a member of the Inside-the-Beltway Establishment or the “Ruling Class.”
They said it was the Establishment, those dreaded RINOs, who betrayed the infallible Senator Ted Cruz and the conservative cause by agreeing to the Senate deal. And they reflexively attacked the House Republican leadership for “surrendering.”
They were oblivious—oblivious to the point of delusion—that neither the House Leadership nor the conservative Republican Senators who voted with Senate Leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell had any other viable alternative. Had they continued to “hold the line,” we would have hit the debt ceiling, and forced to eliminate in one fell swoop 40% of the government—a prospect that all, not most, all non-fringe conservative economists and business leaders agree would have been devastating and entirely pointless.
In other words, Senate and House Republican leaders had two options as of October, 2013: support a short-term spending measure at the 2013 Sequester levels and reopen the government, or risk a completely unnecessary financial disaster, for which they would have been blamed.
They chose wisely.
Speaker Boehner fought the good fight. He stood with Ted Cruz and the Tea Party movement for as long as he could. He submitted bill after bill defunding or delaying Obamacare. He slammed the White House and Senate Democrats for their intransigence, their unwillingness to compromise or even negotiate. He fought literally to the last 90 minutes of hitting the debt ceiling.
He was a good conservative soldier and he should have been praised as such. The same goes for Mitch McConnell. Yet, he was subjected to wrathful denouncements by Tea Party leaders. Men and women who had no plan for what would happen once the Senate and the White House invariably rejected defunding or delaying Obamacare. Men and women who insisted that John Boehner fight an unwinnable fight, only to stab him in the back once he lost.
Two months later in December, 2013, facing far less scrutiny from the media, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan struck a long term budget deal with Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray.
Although generally well received by moderates from both sides, the deal was criticized by both conservatives and liberals for conceding too much to the other side. But by far the most vociferous opposition came from our friend Mark Levin and the conservative grassroots, who were against the budget deal before they even read it, prompting Speaker Boehner to fire back against the same people whose torch he carried during the government shutdown.
Given how unfairly they had treated him, Speaker Boehner’s reaction wasn’t a surprise (though I think a more prudent Speaker may have avoided publicizing the internecine warfare, which gave an opening to the left and their media allies to attack conservatives.)
The deal brokered wasn’t perfect, but incredibly, it didn’t give Democrats the three core things they wanted. Given that the GOP controls just one third of one third of government, it was indisputably the best deal conservatives could have gotten.
But alas, the deal struck by the staunch conservative Paul Ryan and passed overwhelmingly by the Republican caucus was an anathema to the Tea Party because it didn’t go far enough in cutting spending. Fortunately this time, with a few notable exceptions, the conservative leadership in Congress ignored the base, and the best result conservatives could have hoped for was achieved. Undeterred, the Tea Party was furious and vowed to crusade against Boehner, Ryan, et al.
And this is the environment conservatives currently find themselves in. President Obama’s popularity and credibility have taken massive hits largely because of the Obamacare fiasco, yet the severe internal division within the conservative movement threatens conservative electoral prospects.
Predicting what the political environment will be like next November is futile—there are too many unknowns. What is known is that the Tea Party’s ironclad commitment to making the perfect the enemy of the good does not bode well for putting the GOP in the best possible position to win the Senate and strengthen its House majority. The conservative movement is divided. Whether conservatives like Paul Ryan have the leadership skills and strategic savvy to unite the movement remains to be seen. But if conservatives are to win back the White House and build a lasting majority, unite we must.
The war between the Establishment and movement conservatism reached its zenith when Ronald Reagan and his allies took on the Nelson Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party in the 1970s. Reagan challenged and almost beat a sitting GOP President Gerald Ford in the 1976 primary, and beat out the more establishmentarian (though not a big fan of Nelson Rockefeller) candidate George H.W. Bush four years later.
Today, self-anointed conservative leaders in the Tea Party (a movement whose core philosophical principles I embrace) are obsessed with refighting this battle. They see Rockefeller types everywhere they look, even when their targets are staunch anti-Rockefeller (to use an anachronistic phrase) conservatives like Tom Coburn and Paul Ryan. They see anyone in the GOP leadership as a member of the vaguely defined Establishment, even though Speaker Boehner towed the Tea Party line throughout the entire shutdown, never once turning on the Tea Party caucus.
The Tea Party’s willingness to fight their own in the open can be boiled down to this principle:
If you agree with us on policy and strategy, but disagree with us on tactics, you are part of the problem, a sellout RINO, and a member of the surrender caucus.
Just think about the breathtaking hubris of such a position. If I agree with Ted Cruz on policy (Obamacare is bad for the country), agree with him on strategy (Obamacare should be repealed), but disagree with him on tactics (Obamacare should not be defunded through the CR process), I am a RINO!
The Tea Party sees the current Republican civil war as a battle between the Establishment and movement conservatives akin to Reagan taking on Rockefeller. But it’s not that. Paul Ryan is not a Nelson Rockefeller Republican. Neither is John Boehner. The war the Tea Party is waging is not against the Establishment; it is against conservatives who recognize the limits of power (and especially power limited by minority representation in Congress.)
It would greatly behoove the Tea Party to lay down arms in its war against conservatives who don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good and who pursue conservative policies that can actually be achieved. It is acceptable, and indeed desirable, for the conservative base to pressure Republicans to maximize conservative outcomes. The Democrats' left-wing base does the same thing. However, there is a big difference between pressuring the GOP to move right and demanding the GOP do something that is politically impossible and then excoriating them in the harshest possible terms. Notice that the left-wing base doesn't do that.
We won’t know what long-term impact the current conservative infighting will have on Republican electoral prospects. What we do know is that Tea Party leaders who have come unhinged in excoriating Speaker Boehner and others do nothing to advance those prospects, or the conservative cause.