The emergence of the Tea Party in 2009 posed two questions. Would the movement capture the Republican party and, if it did, would this strengthen the resistance to Barack Obama’s liberal project or cripple it? The debt-ceiling fight in Washington settles the first issue: the Tea Party insurgency has indeed captured the Republican party in Congress.
The other question will be answered within days, and it could go either way. Many Tea Party activists see the showdown with the Obama administration as their finest hour. But if it goes wrong it could destroy their movement and gravely wound the Grand Old Party.
The Tea Party has never lacked energy or conviction, and from the start it commanded surprisingly wide support among the broader electorate – a vital point I will come back to in a moment. In other ways it looked destined to fail.
As a point of principle it has no leaders, only would-be favourites such as Eric Cantor, the Republican number two in the House of Representatives, and Michele Bachmann, the representative from Minnesota who is running for the GOP nomination (and doing pretty well). It has no real policies, only an unfocused rage against big government. It assisted in the rout of House Democrats in 2010, yet seems incapable of tactical calculation. It nominated weak Senate candidates (they were anti-establishment, all that mattered) and casually threw away its chance of winning control of both chambers.
These traits, visible again in recent weeks, are still driving events.
Ten days ago, Mr Obama said he wanted to resolve the debt-ceiling impasse with a “grand bargain”. The aim was to cut public borrowing by more than $4,000bn over 10 years. He would risk his party’s anger by agreeing to cut Medicare, Social Security and other programmes sacred to the left. In return, Republicans would soften opposition to higher taxes – only a little, but enough to give both sides something. John Boehner, leader of the House Republicans, reached an understanding with the president.
The Tea Party said no. The GOP was being asked to yield inches on taxes to gain yards on spending cuts. It amounted to victory – yet the Tea Party saw a squalid compromise. Nothing but the Democrats’ abject surrender would do. The fact that Democrats control the White House and the Senate was of no account.
Nor, apparently, is the prospect of default on US government debt. Many Tea Party activists scoff at the Treasury’s deadline of August 2 to break the debt-ceiling impasse. They are relaxed about letting the quarrel drag on beyond that. Some say the ceiling should not be raised in any case. The US has borrowed too much already. Let the government default. Perhaps that will focus attention, finally, on the underlying problem.
This mindset carries the seeds of the GOP’s destruction. If the government does default, and if Tea Party intransigence puts the blame for this historic calamity squarely on the Republicans, how long might it be before the GOP is trusted with power again? Mr Obama’s Democrats could sweep back to unchecked control of government next year. The Tea Party, having come from nowhere to exercise such influence in the space of two years, would be driven from the public square.
Mainstream Republicans understand the danger. Hence the latest development in the saga. Mitch McConnell, leader of the Senate Republicans, has come up with a stratagem to let the president raise the debt ceiling at his own initiative. Republicans in the House would be free to vote against it – as many as three times before next year’s elections – but the president would veto those rejections. This avoids default and lets the GOP register its protest. Meaningful budget reform would have to wait.
A ridiculous manoeuvre, you say. True, but what is not ridiculous in Washington these days? Mr McConnell’s device resolves the immediate threat of default, and removes the gun that the GOP has placed at its own temple. I say, fine. The only problem is that many Tea Party supporters want to keep the gun there. More than a few want to pull the trigger. They think they are winning. The US, they believe, is just one default away from seeing the light.
As reckless as this may be, do not underestimate the movement. Tea Party zealotry has achieved more than anybody expected, and within the past few days has come within reach of a remarkable political victory. Tea Party concerns, moreover, should not be dismissed as the ravings of a lunatic fringe – an error that Democrats persist in making. Metropolitan liberals are woefully out of touch with strands of opinion that the Tea Party legitimately expresses.
The US is a big place: the geographical, cultural and political distance between much of the country and the federal government in Washington is vast. “Don’t tread on me,” is a quintessentially US sentiment. Liberals have ignored that reality as blithely as the Tea Party ignores common sense, and are paying the price.
If it could learn just a little restraint, the Tea Party would be hard to stop. If not, it will smash itself, hobble the Republican party, and dash US hopes of economic recovery into the bargain. Tough choice.
More columns at www.ft.com/clivecrook