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July 27 2011 6:57 PM

The Day the Tea Party Grew Up

How John Boehner convinced skeptics that a political victory could be principled, too.

Herman Cain. Click image to expand.
Herman Cain

One by one, the conservative stalwarts of the 112th Congress ascended a small stage and rallied their soldiers. Mike Lee! Rand Paul! Jim DeMint! Louie Gohmert! Steve King! Behind them: an impressive arrangement of the American flag and the Capitol dome. In front of them: about three dozen Tea Party activists, plus an equal number of reporters.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

The size of the crowd was less important than the message: Hold the line. This was a cross-Tea Party, cross-conservative movement event to make sure House and Senate Republicans did not relent in pressing for the "Cut, Cap, and Balance" plan, which passed the House but failed in the Senate. Oppose the Boehner plan, the compromise. Do what RedState, Heritage Action, FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, and the Club for Growth are telling you.

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Or, you know, don't.

"Imagine having to negotiate with Barack Obama!" said Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., a confirmed "no" vote on the Boehner plan, banging the podium with his hand. "Imagine having to negotiate with Harry Reid! Give John Boehner, give Eric Cantor, all the credit in the world. But embolden them! They need your help, we need your help."

They need help? Walsh made it clear that he was telling the crowd to stick with Cut, Cap, and Balance, but this was not the language of a conservative putsch. Not far away, presidential candidate Herman Cain was talking to supporters and reporters. (He would not speak at the rally, because of concerns over it becoming a "campaign" event.) What did "hold the line" mean to him?

"Don't raise the debt ceiling," he said. "Don't raise tax rates. To me, that's holding the line. Now, whichever one of these plans does that, that's fine."

Even Cut, Cap, and Balance raised the debt ceiling, though, and he supported that. Did he fully oppose the Boehner plan? After all, it would cut spending, schedule a vote on a balanced budget amendment, and create a committee to fast-track painful reforms— possibly Medicare cuts.

The Boehner plan "doesn't go far enough," he said.

Would he challenge Boehner's leadership over the deal?

"No," he told reporters.

Eight months ago, in an interview Democrats love to send around even more than they like to call Republicans "extremists," Boehner predicted that the vote on the debt limit increase would be the "first really big adult moment" for new Republican members of Congress. Democrats read that as Boehner saying that Republicans would have to suck it up and raise the limit. Instead, it's turning out to be an entirely different kind of adult moment: Movement conservatives are seeing the value of playing politics, and trying to convince themselves that pure partisanship can be principled, too.

For House Republicans, the day began with a conference meeting where the speaker told them to "get their ass in line." It was as literal as an "adult moment" can get. It won converts. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich., told reporters he was "looking for a path to yes," which was something of an endorsement for a freshman from a safe Republican seat. He said he'd been given a quote from the evangelical leader Francis Schaeffer, and unfolded a piece of paper to get the quote right.

" 'If you are going to expect perfect or nothing, you will get nothing every time,' " quoted Huizenga. He folded the paper. "I don't want nothing. I want to make sure it's significant."

As the day went on, the conservatives holdouts were sounding glummer. After his Tea Party speech, Gohmert, R-Texas, shook his head and raised the specter of a Boehner win. "After the conference this morning," he said, "I think there are more people that will be supportive of this plan." He excused himself to talk strategy with Cain.

What were the risks for conservatives who bucked Boehner? They are pretty obvious to anyone who has paid attention for two years. The outside groups attacking a Boehner deal compared it to the situation that brought about TARP—panic, blamed on the Republicans, forcing them into a bad deal. In his own statement endorsing the Boehner plan, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., went out of his way to slay the TARP demon.

"They are quite simply wrong," said Issa of the critics. "I was a leading opponent of TARP because it created a massive slush fund that invited abuse. … The debate today is over how much spending will be cut in exchange for an increase in the debt limit. That is movement in the right direction."

But members of Congress lost their seats over TARP. There are votes that define careers. Sometimes, if you make the wrong choice, you lose your base forever. The universe of Republicans currently worried about that is fairly small. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a libertarian icon who's running for Senate, said he was still leaning "no" on the Boehner plan.

"Unless they change, quite substantially, the current year figures on spending cuts, I just can't vote yes," he said. "But I tell you, I don't begrudge those who are enthusiastically on board, saying this is the best deal we can get."

These aren't the sounds of a Republican revolt. By the end of Wednesday, Republicans were totally on message about how they chose the best of three plans (the others being Harry Reid's plan or default) and would push it through. Democrats obsessed over which conservative groups were most annoyed, and they were whipping their own votes to make the GOP's job harder. But it looks increasingly like the only win Democrats got was the Republican back-down from a "grand bargain" that would have raised the eligibility age for Medicare.

The Tea Party won in 2010, said Dave Van Allen, a Virginia Tea Partier who'd made 50 "Hold the Line" T-shirts for protesters and just managed to give them all away. "Winners don't compromise."