The more I think about it, the more it seems clear that something vitally important happened over the past week to and within the GOP. The efforts to turn the government-shutdown battle into a confrontation over Planned Parenthood and the subsequent revelation that the budget savings in 2011 were minuscule (1 percent of what was originally trumpeted) were test cases for the new Republican Party and its understanding of how to handle the Tea Party. And for the Tea Party. And both passed.
What does the Tea Party want? Clearly, what it doesn’t want is what it got from 2009 onward: A vast expansion of the federal government with more to come. But with a Democrat in the White House and Democrats in control of the Senate, the ability of the GOP to reverse the trend line immediately is extraordinarily limited. That’s what the outcome of the budget negotiations between the House and the Senate over the weekend demonstrated.
All through the budget negotiation, some self-appointed leaders of the Tea Party were excited by the prospect of a shutdown. They hate government, they hate Democrats, they hate Obama, and this would have been an expression of those hatreds. They also knew that the last GOP government shutdown in 1995 was a political catastrophe. So why did they want it so much? I think that, without necessarily knowing it consciously, they wanted it as a demonstration of their power over the GOP. What could prove that power more clearly than the GOP following them rather than pursuing a more pragmatic and mainstream strategy?
In the end, though, the actual grass roots as opposed to these supposed gardeners of the grass roots did not rise up and force the GOP to make this Hobson’s choice. The millions who fueled the Tea Party’s triumph didn’t lose it as the negotiation was nearing its conclusion last Friday, and didn’t this week when the fact that the actual deficit reduction would be $352 million rather than $38.5 billion became widely known. Even more telling, the GOP leadership had enough votes for the deal that it could afford not to complain when 59 House members angered by the deal decided to say No to it.
Why didn’t the Tea Party rise up? Perhaps because it remains convinced of the stark choice before the United States—Obamaism or its alternative. The only thing that schisms, splits, ideological purity contests and the like will do is confuse matters and weaken the possibility of an end to Obamaism. Keeping an eye on the main event is the most important task for the opposition, and it’s made even more important by how tempted some in the opposition camp are by the prospect of an internal ideological cleansing.