What Tea Party activists are expecting from the Republican Congress.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 4 2010 7:41 PM

What Would Pelosi Do?

What Tea Party activists are expecting from the Republican Congress.

Jim DeMint. Click image to expand.
Jim DeMint

"This is going to sound wrong," says Ryan Hecker. "But Obama and Pelosi—I've got to give them credit."

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Hecker, a Tea Party activist based in Texas, was the main drafter of the Contract From America. It was a user-driven 10-point pledge for candidates that was signed by dozens of this week's winners in the House and Senate, and it was typical of this year's Tea Party innovations—created at the grassroots level, adopted and promoted by every conservative group that wanted to prove its bona fides.

Now, all Hecker wants is for Republicans to live up to the contract. Doing so, he says, will require them to be like President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—and make decisions that aren't popular. "Pelosi, especially, was very bold," Hecker says. "She knew health care reform wasn't popular after a certain point, but she kept pushing it because she believed in it. That's what we need from our guys—they have to de-fund health care. They have to take it on the chin and repeal the popular parts of it, too."

Welcome to the day after the Tea Party revolution. There's been plenty of focus on the question of whether Tea Party upsets cost Republicans a few winnable seats. (Short version: They replaced a few electable candidates with losers, but made up for it with energy and surprise wins elsewhere.)

For their part, however, members of the Tea Party have already moved on. They're focusing on that lengthy list of demands that Republicans signed when they were groveling for their support. These are not things that Republicans actually think they can achieve right now, but they're mistaken if they think that gets them off the hook with the Tea Party.

And so far, at least, Republicans have convinced the Tea Party that they get it. They have sworn, for example, to defund the Affordable Care Act—something that, in effect, may just mean defunding the panel that implements it. But read between the lines of the interviews incoming House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have given so far, and you can find the first notes of compromise.

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"We can and should vote on straight repeal [of the Affordable Care Act], repeatedly," said McConnell in a speech at the Heritage Foundation on Wednesday. Moments later, he noted that conservatives would not succeed in repealing the bill, because Barack Obama was president. And in the same speech he was bearish on one of Sen. Jim DeMint's most ballyhooed priorities, a full ban on earmarks.

In his Tuesday press conference, Boehner dropped only one line that could worry the Tea Party. Asked whether Republicans would support raising the debt ceiling, Boehner would only say that it was being discussed. A real Tea Partier would have said no, possibly with an expletive prefacing it.

"How can they raise it?" asked Robin Stublen, a Tea Party leader in Florida, where the GOP did very well Tuesday. "The debt is the first thing we talk about. Raising the debt limit is like increasing the limit on a credit card that's already been maxed out."

But it's what parties in power sometimes have to do. Obama spent some of his first State of the Union pointing out that he "hated" the bailout that he voted for and implemented. He, and other Democrats, spent much of 2010 apologizing or explaining why they'd failed to deliver on what the party wanted—cap-and-trade legislation, an end to the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, immigration reform. Some elements of their base were more forgiving (Hispanic voters, who carried Harry Reid to victory in Nevada) and some less (gay voters, who voted less Democratic than usual).

So Republicans need to do a combination of education and sleight-of-hand to convince Tea Partiers that, no, seriously, they are doing everything they can to dismantle the state.

"We focus too much on the cult of the presidency in politics, in general," says Phil Kerpen, the vice president for public policy for the Tea Party behemoth Americans for Prosperity. "I view some of our job as voter education about what Congress can do and can't do. The House originates appropriations, so we can start to make meaningful spending cuts, but some of that is going to die in the Senate."