Here’s Where the Tea Party’s Power Comes From

Sam Stein and Ryan Grimm have a great article at the Huffington Post that gives the behind-the-scenes of the shutdown and debt ceiling fights. It begins with how President Obama and Harry Reid mended their relationship and decided over the summer that they were going to play hardball. Obamacare wouldn’t be touched and they wouldn’t negotiate over a government shutdown or the debt ceiling. The piece then walks through how the negotiations unfolded and Reid and McConnell eventually came to their deal.

But there’s one minor part that exemplifies why the Tea Party has so much power in the Republican Party. Here it is:

The speaker was juggling the demands of multiple factions. His moderate members had been complaining in private that the standoff was crushing them. But they hadn’t bolted, much to the delight of the conservative wing. “At one point,” a senior House GOP aide said of one caucus meeting, “Michele Bachmann stood up and thanked the moderates for standing with us.”

Remember when the moderates were fed up with the Tea Party and ready to revolt? That fizzled very quickly. We’re not talking about the mainstream conservatives here. Instead, it’s Peter King and the 20-30 other House GOPers who could have joined up with House Democrats at any time and brought an end to the shutdown. These are the members that the Tea Party is most worried about, because they can reduce the Tea Party’s power by siding with House Dems.

But this never happened. The moderates refused to betray the Tea Party, despite repeated threats. Why? It’s not entirely clear. Maybe they fear a primary challenge. Maybe they have a deep belief in caucus unity. Whatever the reason, Boehner was rightly more afraid that the Tea Party would break off and declare war on the Republican Party than the moderates would. If the moderates were willing to commit electoral suicide by starting an intra-party civil war, they would have the power to dictate the House strategy to Boehner. Time and time again we’ve seen that’s not the case. The moderates won’t wage war against the establishment. The Tea Party, on the other hand, is more than willing to do so. If they break off from the Republican Party, it will have grave electoral effects on both. Neither would survive. But the Tea Party either isn’t considering the consequences or don’t care about them. The same dynamic exists with moderate Republicans, but they care about the consequences. The Tea Party’s blind recklessness is what gives it its true power.

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Take a Bow, Mr. Speaker

Speaker John Boehner
Speaker John Boehner

Last night, Congress passed the McConnell-Reid plan to reopen the government and avoid a default. It also includes an income verification requirement for Obamacare and sets up a bicameral committee that will attempt to come to a large budget deal by December 13th. In return for a 16 day government shutdown and debt ceiling brinksmanship, Republicans received a cosmetic change in Obamacare that does nothing substantial.

It’s easy to look at that and lament the wasted time and needless suffering that was caused by it. It’s easy to wish that John Boehner had decided on September 30th to break the Hastert Rule and pass a clean continuing resolution and clean debt ceiling increase. It’s easy to look for blame and settle on the speaker. But it’s wrong.

It’s wrong, because it ignores the internal political dynamics that exists in the Republican House conference and it holds Boehner to a standard that no politician should be held to. If Boehner had brought to the floor a clean CR and clean debt ceiling bill, he would’ve faced a revolt amongst his members. They would’ve lambasted him in the media and challenged his speakership. It would’ve been ugly.

But it wouldn’t end there. It would have created a deep fissure in the GOP. Anyone who voted for those bills would’ve faced a primary challenge. It would’ve pitted any conservative in favor of a quick retreat against those wanting to fight. The Tea Party would have gone to war against the establishment. It would eliminate any chance that the House could pass legislation until 2015. It would also put the Republican House majority in jeopardy. Imagine a year of Republican-on-Republican attacks, nasty primaries and voters choosing to stay home. This is what journalists are asking Boehner to do when they ask him to cut the Tea Party loose. They are asking him to tear his party in half.

For Boehner, this was never about defunding Obamacare or extracting policy concessions from the White House. He knew the first was never going to happen and the second was highly unlikely. The White House was looking to end debt-ceiling hostage taking and wasn’t going to negotiate. Boehner wasn’t going to let the U.S. default so he always knew he was going to surrender.

Instead, this was all about party unity. The longer Boehner postponed the day of surrender, the more he could keep his conference unified. The Tea Party can’t survive without the Republican Party and the Republican Party can’t survive without the Tea Party. Over time, the extreme tactics of the Tea Party may disappear as the political and policy consequences of their actions slowly build, but that take elections. It takes establishment candidates defeating Tea Party candidates in primaries. A Republican civil war reduces the power of both. It’s easy to see why liberals would love that outcome – it would give Democrats immense control of the legislative process. But it would be terrible for the Republican party.

This is political dynamic that John Boehner has to deal with. He must lead members that vary widely across the conservative political spectrum, who are overeager to make an impact and are willing to use extreme tactics to get what they want. He must deal with a newly invigorated grassroots base that attempts to undermine and replace him at every turn. And he faces all of this in a time when the speakership has fewer powers than ever before.

The past three weeks were his greatest challenge. He had to build up as much credibility with the Tea Party as he possibly could, knowing he would have no choice but to betray them in the end. That meant listening to them and letting them guide his actions. His strategy was to do whatever the Tea Party wanted. His moderate members were always going to support him and have his back when the debt ceiling vote came. The right-wingers were the ones he had to court.

After the deal last night, the results are in: His strategy was a huge success.

His members gave him a standing ovation during their conference meeting Wednesday – the same meeting where he announced that he was surrendering. One supporter of the #DefundObamacare movement said that Boehner’s speakership is “more secure than ever.” Rep. Raul Labrador, one of the most conservative members of the House, said he’s “really proud of Speaker Boehner.” Another hard-line conservative, Rep. Phil Gingrey, said yesterday “Speaker Boehner’s got more courage in his little finger than most of us do in our entire bodies.” These are the same members who would have challenged his speakership if he attempted to pass a clean CR and clean debt ceiling bill.

This is Boehner’s greatest accomplishment. He kept his party unified in the face of overwhelming odds. The fact that they split on the vote yesterday is meaningless. The Republican House stands as one, even if it doesn’t always vote that way. Anyone who thinks this was an easy feat for the speaker hasn’t been watching the internal dynamics of the Republican conference. John Boehner has the toughest job in politics and he’s performed it masterfully.

Take a bow, Mr. Speaker.