The Tea Party’s pyrrhic “victory” over the federal government’s shutdown and the near-defaulting of the national debt have left many in Washington with ringing ears and splitting headaches. As the 16-day standoff came to a close Wednesday night — with the Republicans winning a continuing resolution that maintains current sequestration rates through January 15, as well as a concession from Democrats to enforce means testing for the Affordable Care Act — the Republicans are otherwise left licking their wounds and taking the blame for what many now see as a pointless and wasteful indulgence of power.
Despite this, the Tea Party is viewing the outcome as merely a ceasefire. “Everybody understands that we’re not going to be able to repeal this law until 2017, and that we have to win the Senate and we have to win the White House,” said Michael Needham, CEO of Heritage Action, Wednesday on FOX News. For many Tea Partiers, the notion that they fought at all for their convictions, despite the cost, is victory enough; to them, that Republicans walked away from the brink only reflects their party’s lack of conviction in the fight.
“Barack Obama demanded unconditional surrender from the Republican Party. He pretty much got it,” wrote Judson Phillips, publisher of Tea Party Nation. “The Republican Party has capitulated on the central issue of Obamacare. Mitch McConnell and John Boehner never wanted this fight. In true RINO fashion, they wanted to surrender early and often. [. . .] In short, the GOP got nothing from their fight. But then again, McConnell, Boehner and the GOP establishment never tried.”
As it turns out, this attitude has turned off not just Democrats, but Republicans, too. According to an October 9-13 Pew Research poll, 49 percent of all Republicans polled now have an unfavorable opinion of the Tea Party, compared to 30 percent that see the group as favorable. The movement’s unfavorability has increased four points since June and 24 points from February 2010, months before the group’s midterm election victory. Among liberal and moderate Republicans, the Tea Party’s favorability is even worse: just 27 percent, down 19 points from June.
A faltering movement
Along all political lines, the Tea Party’s favorability took a hit in nearly an identical way. Tea Party favorability among Republicans dropped from 62 percent in June to 53 percent today, and dropped from 38 to 30 percent among Independents and 20 to 13 percent among Democrats.
“By a 50% to 31% margin, whites now have a more unfavorable than favorable view of the Tea Party; four months ago whites were about evenly divided in their opinions,” read the Pew report. “Over the same period of time there has been little change in opinions of the Tea Party among blacks or Hispanics, who already held a negative opinion of the Tea Party in June.”
“And although favorable ratings of the Tea Party have declined across most age groups, there has been a 12-point drop among 18-29 year olds, just 25% of whom now have a positive view of the Tea Party movement.”
This presents a problem for the Republican Party. Going into election season, the vast majority of the public (47 percent) feels that the Tea Party is a separate movement from the Republican Party (compared to 38 percent that feel that the Tea Party is part of the Republican Party).
The Tea Party’s perceived sense of disaster — that government spending is out of control, that the government has grown bigger under President Obama and that the deficit has grown beyond the government’s means to control it — is growing harder and harder for the public to swallow. The extent of the brinksmanship the Tea Party is willing to undertake at the nation’s expense — dragging the Republicans behind them — have hardened the majority of the public’s resolve toward what is being increasingly seen as an extremist wing.
The Republican-Tea Party civil war
This hardened resolve has transferred into the party itself, where mainstream Republicans are increasingly seeing the Tea Party as being disloyal to the party. In August, Tea Party Patriots and For America, a Tea Party-based grassroot advocacy group, launched a campaign against a dozen Republican senators to force them to take a stance on defunding the Affordable Care Act. This is seen as a direct violation of the Reagan Rule: Republicans do not attack their fellow Republicans.
“There are members with a different agenda,” Rep. Charles Boustany (R – La.) said of Tea Partiers on Wednesday in an interview with the National Journal. “And I’m not sure they’re Republicans and I’m not sure they’re conservative.”
“The speaker has said consistently unless we can put 218 votes up, and preferably more than that, our ability to negotiate is pretty much undermined and that’s the problem we’ve repeatedly found ourselves in,” said Boustany. “Look at payroll tax. Look at fiscal cliff. You can go on and on. There are a handful of members — the numbers sort of vary, it’s in the 20-30 range — that are enough to derail a Republican conservative agenda in the House.”
“Their allegiance is not to the members in the conference. Their allegiance is not to the leadership team and to conservative values. Their allegiance is to these outside Washington DC interest groups that raise money and go after conservative Republicans.”
All of this begs the question: Can Republicans can win control of the government with the Tea Party? Many Republicans feel that the movement cuts against the Republicans in two separate but equal ways. First, mainstream Republicans worry that Tea Party members will challenge them in primary elections if they don’t hold a hard enough line on issues like defunding the Affordable Care Act. Most Republican House districts are gerrymandered to the point that they are considered “safe” from Democratic incursion. However, the fear that a Tea Party challenge can replace a mainstream Republican with a Tea Partier who will ultimately lose the general election to a Democrat. This fear is keeping the Republicans under the draw of the Tea Party and forcing the Republicans to take increasingly partisan positions, such as Speaker John Boehner’s (R – Ohio) insistence that he did not have the votes to approve the Tea Party-disparaged continuing resolution — even though the CR passed Wednesday with more than 60 extra votes.
“We really did go too far,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R – S.C.), who is facing a primary challenge. “We screwed up. Their [the Tea Party’s] response is making things worse, not better.”
Second, the Tea Party represents an anti-business sensibility that rubs against corporate allegiances the Republicans have cultivated and cherished as a key to their long-term success. “Buying the vote” has been the Republicans’ unofficial election strategy, and as seen in the 2012 elections, big money matters, especially in state and local elections.
“Most business PACs have assumed that any Republican is generally acceptable on business issues,” said David French, senior vice president for government relations at the Washington-based National Retail Federation. “That’s an assumption we are reconsidering.”
“The current situation is being made more challenging by a handful of Republican candidates in the House. We’re going to look at a handful of races where we might be able to make a difference.”
The road forward seems to be a splitting of the marriage between party and movement. With the Republican civil war revving up, a middle ground between th Republicans and the Tea Party seems to be an increasingly remote possibility. Strangely enough, the American public agrees with this. According to an October 11 Gallup poll, 60 percent of all Americans feel that a new third party is needed.
“Republicans (52%) and Democrats (49%) are similar in their perceptions that a third party is needed. In fact, this marks the first time that a majority of either party’s supporters have said a third party is needed,” the Gallup report stated. “Given the inability of the Republican and Democratic parties to agree on the most basic of government functions — passing an annual budget to pay for federal programs — it is perhaps not surprising that the percentage of Americans who believe a third party is needed has never been higher.”
Traditionally, third parties in the United States came from the political extremes. Strom Thurmond’s “States Rights” party, for example, was a split-off of Southern Democrats, frustrated with Harry Truman’s call for civil rights. Third parties present a threat for the parties, as they threaten to split the vote. Ross Perot’s third party challenge in 1992 contributed directly to George H. W. Bush’s defeat and Ralph Nader’s 2000 third party challenge stole enough vote from Al Gore to clinch an electoral vote victory for George W. Bush, despite a popular vote defeat.
As popular polling shows the Republicans at their lowest popularity in the history of modern polling, it is clear something must be done about the Tea Party “problem.” As it stands right now, the Republicans’ hope to retake the Senate are dashed and the House — previously thought to be safely in Republican control until at least 2022 — is now in play. What that “something” may be, however, depends on the courage and the desperation the Republicans find themselves in.
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