One of the more fanciful notions to come out of Washington’s Longest Month is that the Tea Party might split off from the GOP. (Frances Weaver explores that scenario in The Week.) But there is no reason for Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, and company to form a new party. The Tea Party now has political power without the accountability of having its name on any ballot. It can shut down the federal government, but it can’t lose an election.
We already have a three-party system. The Democrats control the presidency. In the Senate, a coalition of Democrats and Regular Republicans control the chamber against the right-wing, anti-urban Tea Party. The Democrats need Regular Republicans to reach the 60 percent needed to shut down filibusters. The number of Regular Republicans, as opposed to Tea Party members, hovers near a dozen, give or take a Lindsay Graham. Mitch McConnell, the nominal head of the Republican Party in the Senate, is facing a Tea Party opponent in the GOP primary next year. As with most incumbent Republicans facing Tea Party opponents, McConnell will now vote with the Tea Party almost all the time. Again, the Tea Party picks up seats without having its name on the ballot.
In the House, a coalition of Regular Republicans and Tea Party members control the chamber. The shutdown of the federal government happened because the Tea Party doesn’t want to be the junior partner in this coalition, and it doesn’t trust John Boehner, a presumed Regular Republican, in the Speaker’s chair. The logical solution is for the Democrats and Regular Republicans in the House to form a coalition against the Tea Party, as they have in the Senate. Boehner has resisted this because it could cost him the speakership, and it would be humiliating for him to admit that he’s lost control of the coalition. Lots of suspected Regular Republicans don’t have Boehner’s back because they’re afraid of Tea Party primary challenges. With Congress at what the AP calls “a ghastly approval rating of 5 percent,” they have good reason to fear an anti-incumbent tide that could sweep in new Tea Party members—who, once again, won’t be identified as such on any ballot.
A permanent campaign, and a permanently tottering government
The biggest advantage of our presidential system is that we’re supposed to have a down time from politics, a fixed period in which the presidency and both houses of Congress are stuck with each other and forced to work things out. Remember how much fun we had watching Italy’s government fall every few months?
Americans have been complaining about presidential campaigns starting too early since television was invented, but now we know what a permanent campaign really looks like. Between the government shutdown and the brinksmanship over raising the national debt, I’ve had to read more political news this October than in the month before the last presidential election. (You can skip most election-season stories, which are based on polls and on campaign events that don’t change many votes, but the fight to get anything through Congress this fall has brought new constitutional questions, and new crazy proposals, with each day.) I suspect that the low 21 percent approval rating for the Tea Party is not so much because it is anti-government but because its fundraising and media strategy is to engineer a permanent feeling of crisis in America. And most people are just sick of hearing that collapse is just around the corner.
As Josh Marshall writes:
Everything about the actions of the core Tea Party faction in the House suggests people who think they’re living in heroic times, zero compromises, whole histories at stake—a right wing version of the world many New Left protestors were living in in the late 60s and early 70s, a mix of high histrionics, deep commitment and performance art.
The Daily Beast’s David Frum summarizes what we’re going through:
Before the shutdown was the sequester. Before that was the fiscal cliff. Before that was the near default of 2011. Before that was the battle over food stamps and extended unemployment insurance. Before that, the drama of Obamacare and the summer of the town halls. And before that, of course, were the conflicts of the Bush years, which seemed unprecedented enough at the time.
The American system has historically been governed by unwritten norms every bit as important as the formal rules of the House and Senate. Over the past generation—and especially since 2009—those norms have faded away, replaced by a new and more ruthless style of politics.
Frum also mentions two factors that I mentioned previously as possible reasons for a rightward drift in American politics: an “era of scarcity” and a more diverse society in which “fiscal priorities inescapably become conflicts between ethnicities and cultures” (though I don’t think the latter is inevitable).
The Tea Party’s interest in provoking one showdown after another is why I think Seth Masket may understate the potential for change in next year’s congressional elections. Masket writes:
[…] parties prefer to nominate candidates and push policies that exist just at the edge of voters’ blind spots. […] But start a war, try to create or kill a piece of the social safety net, raise taxes, or shut down the government and its major services, and people will definitely notice, and they may punish you for it.”
Still, he concludes, “voters are notoriously myopic. To the extent that they punish officeholders for their behavior, it’s usually for things that happened very recently,” and the economy is likely to overshadow this fall’s events by early next year.
I’d reverse the order to say that voters traditionally don’t have long memories, but the Tea Party is committed to keeping the crisis mode in Washington going through the next election. It has no intention of retreating into the public’s blind spot. And if voters decide to punish the GOP, it’s the Regular Republicans in more competitive districts who are most likely to suffer. The Tea Party can’t lose.
Photo of Sarah Palin from Catholic News Service.