Will Compromise Kill the Tea Party?

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
June 27 2011 10:08 AM

Will Compromise Kill the Tea Party?

Benjy Sarlin asks whether Tea Partiers have set themselves up for perpetual disappointment by demanding Republicans be more obstinate on the debt ceiling than the party's willing to be.

"The bottom line is this: the only way to cut is to impose the debt ceiling cap," Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler told TPM. "If you have a bad teenager abusing your credit card, you don't put new rules in place, you take the card away."

He described DeMint's "Cut, Cap, and Balance" plan as a "fraud," noting that the movement is especially skeptical of pledges after being told Republicans would cut spending by $100 billion in the this March's continuing resolution.

"What's driving me crazy is the political class is nattering on about a deal, but the American people aren't buying it," he said. "This is just more evidence they're not listening to the people."

The trouble for Meckler and other Tea Party activists is that every time they lay down a line in the sand and the GOP walks over it unscathed, their credibility withers. House Republicans have already cut significant deals with Democrats twice, on extending the Bush tax cuts and on passing a continuing resolution funding the government.
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I guess the importance of this depends on how important we think individual Tea Party groups and leaders are. Sarlin proves that Mark Meckler and Andrew Ian Dodge are holding the fort and giving good quote. But Dodge is running for Senate against Olympia Snowe, and he's not really breathing down her neck. (The last poll, taken by PPP in March, has her at 43 percent and him at 10 percent.) Individual Tea Party leaders are less fearsome than they were in 2010. But that's because they've already co-opted and been co-opted by Republicans. Look at Sarlin's theoretical (and likely-sounding!) scenario, wherein the debt ceiling is raised only after $4 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade and an end to $1 trillion of tax breaks. That's just miles far to the right of where Republicans were two years ago. If all Tea Party activists are doing is creating a right flank that makes a deal like this look moderate , they're merely the most effective political movement in a generation.

Sarlin begs a question: Will the Tea Party rebel in any serious way over compromises? I doubt it. Their path reminds me quite a lot of the path liberals took in 2007. That year began with outrage, rallies, and in-person confrontations with Democrats * over the new congressional majority's failure to stop the surge. It was an outrage -- progressives had just helped win an election with a clear mandate to pull out of Iraq, and here went George W. Bush, sending more troops. And there went congressional Democrats, failing to stop him!

You might have expected Democratic base voters to rebel over this, but they didn't. Their presidential candidates all towed the line against the surge, just like the responsibility-free 2012 GOP candidates are saying whatever the Tea Party wants about debt and the Ryan budget. Base energy went into the presidential campaign. That will happen again, because there's no significant conservative achievement coming out of Congress apart from these big compromises.

*I'd totally forgotten about the genius who asks why House Democrats don't just stage a filibuster.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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