At 10:51 a.m. on Thursday, the speaker of the House took questions from reporters about the tick-tick-tick toward a possible government shutdown. "Democrats are rooting for a government shutdown," said John Boehner. "Our goal is to cut government spending, not shut down the government. … We're going to continue to fight for the largest spending cuts we can get to keep the government open and fund it for the rest of this fiscal year." Boehner reminded the press that Republicans had passed their own package that cut $61 billion over the fiscal year.
An hour or so later, a couple of blocks away, about 200 Tea Party activists trod over damp grass to hear their leaders respond to Boehner. There was at least one reporter for every three or four activists. They were there to hear conservatives rip into Republicans for statements like the one Boehner had just made. "I think there are more press than Tea Party Patriots here," joked freshman Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., in an aside to one of the organizers.
Jenny Beth Martin, the national coordinator of Tea Party Patriots, kicked off the rally as Republican members of Congress lined up to give their speeches. She didn't contradict Boehner at all. "They're blatantly saying that if we go to a government shutdown, it's the Tea Party's fault," said Martin. "Guys, if there's a government shutdown, it's the Congress's fault! They haven't passed a budget since 2009!"
This is not what Democrats want to hear from the Tea Party. Their strategy has exactly two parts.
Part one: Accuse Republicans of forcing the shutdown by conceding everything to the radical, extreme, Nina Totenberg-hating Tea Party movement.
Part two: Cave in and offer the Republicans more budget cuts if they promise not to shut down the government.
So far, the second part of the strategy has gone gangbusters. On March 1, the House passed a short-term continuing resolution that funded the government for two weeks and reduced spending by $4 billion. A week later, Vice President Joe Biden came to the Senate and a deal emerged: Democrats proposed their own long-term CR, with only $6 billion of cuts. That failed. On March 15, another CR passed, funding the government for three weeks and cutting $6 billion more. Since then, Republicans have warned that they won't back anything less than their $61 billion package. So over the weekend, with Biden taking a PR lead role, Democrats announced that they could cut $33 billion and be happy.
"I think it means they're losing, at least, the rhetorical battle," said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., after addressing the Tea Party rally and starting the walk back to the Senate. "I think they've lost public opinion on it. If you polled Democrats, and you asked them if we need to cut spending, I think a majority of Democrats now believe that. So they're reading the tea leaves, so to speak, and I think they're coming around."
The Tea Party's role in this has been wily. While Jenny Beth Martin was echoing the GOP's message, her co-leader, Mark Meckler, was telling the Associated Press that Boehner would "face a primary" if he compromised. Most of the speakers at the Thursday rally avoided that talk. When Rep. Mike Pence went there—carefully preceding the shutdown talk by blaming it on Democrats—it did get applause.
"If liberals in the Senate would rather play political games, and shut down the government instead of making a small down payment on fiscal discipline and reform," said Pence, "I say shut it down."
"Cut it or shut it!" yelled some protesters near the front of the stage. "Cut it or shut it!"
But Martin was one of several Thursday rally speakers who reminded the crowd that Howard Dean had said he'd be "rooting for" a shutdown if he was still DNC chairman, and that Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., had been encouraging Democrats to call every GOP cut "extreme."* The idea that the Democrats were playing the Tea Party activists was so offensive to them—the Schumer quote was already legend, repeated without prompting by several protesters I spoke to—that it kept them on the reservation.
"I keep hearing that the Tea Party is going to rebel against the Republicans," said Ron Kirby, a retired electrical engineer from Alexandria, Va., who held an American flag in one hand and a Gadsden flag in the other. "Whatever it is they get, I'll support them." That was a common sentiment, even if it hasn't been tested yet.
John Lonsiak, a Fredericksburg, Va. activist, put the potential blame for a shutdown on the Democrats but basically agreed with Kirby about the risks. "The government is so big, and has so much inertia," he said. "Nobody's going to die in the street. Nobody's going to starve to death. Nobody's going to miss a mortgage payment that isn't missing it already. The stock market's not going to crash. We must just be a little bit hungrier."
These are the opinions of people who don't think the government should do so much. They're not the intended audience for Democrats. But they hint at the strangeness of the Democrats' focus on the Tea Party over the specifics of the CRs and the risks of a shutdown.
If the plan is to trap Republicans and slowly to build momentum against a shutdown as the government stays stalled, that's a pretty big roll of the dice, and it depends on the GOP and its allies playing looser than they have so far. In 1995, one of the turning points that helped Bill Clinton "win" the shutdown was a Christian Science Monitor breakfast at which Newt Gingrich suggested that the president should have come back and talked things over when the two of them were on Air Force One. That story was the source of the New York Daily News' "Cry Baby" cover cartoon of Gingrich. That's the sort of mistake that Democrats need to count on. So far, neither Republicans nor members of the Tea Party are making it.
Correction, April 4, 2011: This article originally misidentified Chuck Schumer as a Republican. ( Return to the correction.)