Tea party needs to recognize that it's playing with live ammo

Reuters

US Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) depart the Senate floor after their speeches before the night-time budget vote at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, October 16, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • Repubs who brought about the shutdown then voted against ending it may not have actually wanted a shutdown.

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  • This may be the moment the Tea Partiers realized they are playing with live ammo.

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  • Tea Partiers were the dog that finally caught the car and didn’t know what to do with it.

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  • Conservative back-benchers pulling on the end of the rope have always existed.

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  • Shouting dissent from the back bench always carried with it a liberating lack of responsibility.

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The Republicans who brought about the government shutdown then voted against ending it may not have actually wanted a shutdown. They wanted a fight — and some of them assumed they would lose earlier than they did.

This may be the moment the Tea Partiers realized they are playing with live ammo. To use another analogy: Tea Partiers were the dog that finally caught the car and didn’t know what to do with it.

The events of the past three weeks trace back to former Sen. Jim DeMint’s emergence over the last decade as a new sort of gadfly.

Conservative back-benchers pulling on the end of the rope have always existed. There’s nothing new about a few dozen House conservatives refusing to follow party leadership. A conservative senator (or liberal Democrat) dissenting from a bipartisan majority is a time-honored tradition in the upper chamber.

Shouting dissent from the back bench always carried with it a liberating lack of responsibility — you oppose bad policies and let the party leadership worry about how to bring about the best possible policy. If you’re a back-bencher, politics isn’t really “the art of the possible,” because almost nothing is possible in such a position of weakness, except dissenting loudly, and maybe nudging your own party a bit.

But Jim DeMint didn’t stop at just voting no and objecting to unanimous consent agreements. He decided to try to clone himself. In 2008, he founded the Senate Conservatives Fund. Mostly, the group played in open-seat races. But in April 2009, DeMint told liberal Republican Arlen Specter that SCF would be supporting Specter’s 2010 primary opponent, conservative Pat Toomey.

In the 2010 elections, DeMint’s SCF went head to head with the National Republican Senatorial Committee in a handful of open-seat Senate races. In Florida, the NRSC backed moderate (now Democrat) Charlie Crist while SCF backed conservative Marco Rubio. In Kentucky, the NRSC formed a joint fundraising committee with Trey Grayson — Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s handpicked candidate — while the SCF backed Rand Paul.

Allied groups like the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks helped Mike Lee defeat Sen. Bob Bennett in Utah’s GOP primary.

And, of course, in 2012, while the party establishment supported David Dewhurst, the Tea Party groups backed Ted Cruz.

After the 2012 election DeMint left the Senate mid-term to run the Heritage Foundation, whose lobbying arm, Heritage Action, has become an enforcer of Tea Party conservatism. Republican members fear a negative mark on their Heritage Action scorecard.

Lee, Paul and DeMint (and later Cruz) formed a tiny Tea Party caucus with the frequent cooperation of Rubio, Toomey, Tom Coburn, David Vitter, and Ron Johnson. As back-benchers, their role was to pull Republican leadership rightward with firm demands.

In the 2011 debt-limit fight, DeMint and crew demanded a policy called “Cut, Cap and Balance,” which included a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. These demands, the Tea Partiers now argue, helped get sequestration budget cuts passed — a policy far more modest than Cut, Cap and Balance, but more ambitious than what the result would have been otherwise.

But here’s the thing: DeMint, Lee, Paul, Rubio, and Toomey all ultimately voted against the bill that created sequestration. Did they want the U.S. to crash into the debt ceiling, an event with unforeseeable consequences? Did they think some better deal than sequestration (real spending cuts!) was actually attainable?

More likely, it was the standard play of those out of power: Demand as much as you can get, and vote against an imperfect plan even though you're happy it's passing.

Call it “Vote No, Hope Yes.”

Vote-No-Hope-Yes works well, as long as you don’t wield too much power. But something funny happened recently. The Tea Partiers gained some real clout, and started wielding significant power — maybe more than they realized.

When Lee and Cruz decided over the summer to demand the defunding of Obamacare in exchange for keeping the government open, many of their allies didn’t think government would ever actually shut down. They wanted a fight that would highlight Obamacare’s flaws (as if the exchanges’ opening wouldn’t do that enough), and that would rally the conservative base.

Here’s the problem: If enough voices, with enough credibility among the conservative base, start insisting all lawmakers support defund, this actually moves members of the House and Senate. And then something scary happens: Your policies go into effect. In this case, the government shut down because the House wouldn't pass a continuing resolution without the defunding language.

I don’t know if Ted Cruz really believed he could win a government shutdown and thus defund Obamacare. I do not know if Tea Party activists really believed the government would actually shut down, however much they pledged they wanted it to.

With power comes the irritant of worrying about the consequences of your actions.

Timothy P. Carney, The Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at [email protected] His column appears Sunday and Wednesday on washingtonexaminer.com.

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