STONE the crows! The Tea Party is triumphant – at least according to experts assessing the outcome of the fight in Congress over the US Government’s debt ceiling.

Like the Washington Post, which called the long stand-off before a deal was finally done a win for the Republican ginger group, the Tea Party, not least for staring down the GOP leader in the House of Representatives John Boehner.[i]

As well as Geoffrey Garrett, from the University of Sydney’s US Studies Centre, who argues President Obama was a loser: “He allowed the Tea Party to frame the economic debate because he thought his country would agree its adherents were crazy, (but) “the Tea Party got most of what it wanted in the debt ceiling end game.”[ii]

And Giles Whittell of The Times, who points out that even though Democrats control the Senate and the White House Obama “let a small Republican faction dictate the terms of political debate”.[iii]

To which the Crows go caw! Who knows what will happen during the long march to November 2012, when President Obama plus the House of Reps and a third of the Senate will face the people – but if the crows were betting birds they would put their money on the Tea Party stewing in its own rhetoric.

In fact, the July nuttiness over the debt ceiling was probably their finest (or most foolish) hour.

Because what we saw on the floor of Congress was the perils of Pauline (as in Hanson) populism – rhetoric unburdened by reality. Thus, Jenny Beth Martin co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, pulled the standard stunt of comparing the national budget to family finances, calling on “the government to behave as responsibly as citizens must each day. When we run out of money, we stop overspending.” [iv]

Simple when you put it like that. But what did Tea Party dependent Republicans want to cut in the debt ceiling debate? The libertarians, mainstream GOP and tea partiers both, want to wind back government control of welfare and healthcare, even defence. House budget committee chair Raul Ryan proposes vouchers instead of state supplied health.[v]

But, for all their economic sense, such plans upset the biggest beneficiaries of both – the old. And half of Tea Party supporters are 50 or over.[vi] An April poll found 70 per cent of Tea Party supporters opposed cutting public spending on health.[vii]

And cutting defence spending isn’t popular with populists who think waste only applies to programs Democrats back. One of the original Tea Party organisers, Mary Meckler, says they have never polled members on defence spending and “opinions differ”. Funny that.[viii]

As Kate Zernike opined, analysing the politics of the debt deal:

Republicans and Democrats alike were governed by the assumption that the Tea Party did not want any increase in the debt ceiling, that it was willing to support huge spending cuts to popular programs and that it would see even closed tax loopholes as tax increases. Yet polls had long shown Tea Party supporters identifying the economy and jobs — not reducing the federal debt — as the most important problem facing the country.[ix]

The Tea Party is right to want permanent cuts to government spending. Without structural change, not nips and tucks to save a trillion over time, in 15 years federal revenues will only cover health and welfare. As the report from President Obama’s advisory committee on budget reform put it in December, “Every other federal government activity – from national defense and homeland security to transportation and energy – will have to be paid for with borrowed money.”[x]

Except that the world is less inclined to loan the country cash, at least at rock bottom rates, demonstrated by Standard and Poor’s downgrade of US government debt on the weekend. Sure, the other agencies did not follow.[xi] But, for the nation that issues the world’s reserve currency, to have its debt downgraded sends a signal that the debt crisis must be addressed and now.

But while tea partiers in Congress nailed the problem they are not part of the solution and there are three reasons why they hammered their own re-election opportunities during the debt-ceiling dispute.

First, like One Nation, the Tea Party is less about politics, than the right of the aggrieved to complain that the world is not the way they want it. As Richard Hofstadter put it in his famous essay on people alienated with little to be alienated about:

Although American political life has rarely been touched by the most acute varieties of class conflict, it has served again and again as an arena for uncommonly angry minds.’’ All the angrier for their self deluding assumption that their “political passions are unselfish and patriotic. [xii]

If it weren’t the national debt it would be allegations that President Obama was born in Kenya or gun control or whatever. But signed-up obsessives aside, electors rarely vote for single-issue eccentrics once their paucity of policies is clear – look what happened to Pauline Hanson.

Second, for all the talk about the Tea Party forcing reform on the deficit, without something approaching consensus there will never be the cuts to health, welfare and defence that are essential. As House of Representatives Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan acknowledges, securing acceptance of the need for them will take a huge public education campaign. [xiii]

By presenting himself as the voice of reason President Obama managed to make the Tea Party supporters in the House of Representatives look like the extremists. He also put rational Republicans on the back foot. Instead of concentrating on attacking the President over the economy they will also spend the next year assuring electors over 60 that their health care is safe. (This will also take attention away from Obama’s not enormously popular healthcare reforms.)

As the Wall Street Journal editorialised, the Tea Party strategy to reject a debt ceiling deal was no strategy at all:

The idea seems to be that if the House GOP refuses to raise the debt ceiling, a default crisis or gradual government shutdown will ensue, and the public will turn en masse against . . . Barack Obama. The Republican House that failed to raise the debt ceiling would somehow escape all blame. Then Democrats would have no choice but to pass a balanced-budget amendment and reform entitlements, and the tea-party Hobbits could return to Middle Earth. [xiv]

Third (this is where President Obama can also win), by using his bully pulpit to present the budget crisis as one he, not the Tea Party or their mainstream Republican hostages, can fix. It worked for Jed Bartlett, sorry Bill Clinton, when Newt Gingrich used a House majority to try to stare down the Oval Office and came off looking like an extremist – willing to shut down the government to make a political point.[xv] Americans in the 1990s expected legislators to govern not grandstand and there is nothing to indicate they want anything different now.

Certainly, the president’s poll numbers are putrid. Given the state of the economy, this is hardly surprising. But at least he can blame Congress for the budget mess. And a massive three quarters of the electorate disapprove of the way legislators are doing their job.[xvi] The Tea Party in particular has taken a hammering – with a 20 per cent favourable rating and 43 per cent of a survey sample saying it has too much influence in the GOP. [xvii]

As some-time darling of the Republican right and former governor of Arkansas (1996-2007 Mike Huckabee puts it, “(the Tea Party) demonstrated that there is a capacity for ordinary American people to not just influence, but to challenge and change their government, which is a wonderfully healthy thing. … What I don’t know is, does this translate into a party of such ultra orthodoxy that no one with a record of actually governing can get through the mire?” [xviii]

And as Peter Beattie, a wily bird who knows a bit about keeping populists in their box, argues, “This partisan fight will have its final showdown in next year’s presidential election campaign when many present members of congress will not be returned … people in democracies hate the ugly side of politics.” [xix]

The Crows have no clue what will happen in the long march to the 2012 election but they suspect the Tea Party’s pinnacle is past. The US will only tackle its debt when the electorate accepts spending on health and welfare must drop and the Tea Party’s hectoring style is no way to convince them.


[i] The Washington Post, “Winners, Losers” (reprinted in) Australian Financial Review, August 2

[ii] Geoffrey Garrett, “US adrift as Obama outflanked by Tea Party zealots,” Weekend Australian, August 6

[iii] Giles Whittell, “Time to raise your game Mr President,” The Australian August 4

[iv] Jenny Beth Martin, “We are the mainstream,” New York Times, August 2

[v] Paul Ryan, “Health care reform key to debt crisis,” July 31 @ recovered on August 7

[vi] Lydia Saad, “Tea partiers are fairly mainstream in their demographics,” Gallup Hot Topics, April 5 2010, @ recovered on July 16

[vii] Marist%20Poll%20Complete%20April%2018th,%202011%20USA%20Poll%20Tables.pdf recovered on April 1

[viii] Erin McPike, “Defense cuts loom as issue for 2012 GOP field, Real Clear Politics, August 2, @ recovered on August 7

[ix] Kate Zernike, “That monolithic Tea Party just wasn’t there,” New York Times, August 1

[x] Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, “The Moment of Truth,” @ recovered on December 10

[xi] Paul Wiseman, “US downgrade raises anxiety, if not interest rates,” Associated Press, August 7 @

[xii] Richard Hofstadter, The paranoid style in American politics and other essays, (Harvard University Press, 1966) 1, 4

[xiii] David Morgan, “Tea Party groups see Medicare overhaul chance,” CNBC August 3, recovered on August 7

[xiv] “The GOP’s reality test: Republicans who oppose Boehner’s debt deal are playing into Obama’s hands,” Wall Street Journal, July 27

[xv] Voice of America News, “Current US Government shutdown debate similar to one 15 years ago,” April 7 2011, recovered on August 6

[xvi] Real Clear Politics, “Congressional Job Approval,” August 1 @ recovered on August 7

[xvii] Michael Cooper and Megan Thee-Brenan, “Disapproval rating for Congress at record 82 per cent after debt talks,” New York Times, August 4

[xviii] Christian Heinze, “Huckabee questions tea party’s emphasis on purity,” The Hill, February 21, @ recovered on August 7

[xix] Peter Beattie, “Advice to the boss: be wary of the electorate’s fury over partisan quarrels,” Weekend Australian, August 7