The Tea Party is turning into the proverbial double-edged sword for the Republicans. Last fall, the power of the Tea Party cut deep into Democrats’ power in Washington. This spring their sharp rhetoric and refusal to compromise is cutting the legs out from under Republican House leadership.
Speaker of the House John Boehner reportedly told the Tea Party freshman at a caucus meeting on Monday that he felt ‘abandoned’ by the 54 of them who voted against him on the last continuing budget resolution. And he warned them that Democrats are right when they think Republicans will take the lion’s share of the blame from the public if a budget impasse forces the government to shut down this weekend.
At the moment Speaker Boehner wants to get all of his 218 Republicans behind any budget deal he signs with the Democrats to signal a united front and nip in the bud the argument for any future Tea Party coup against him. The result is that until the Speaker and his GOP leadership team can convince the Tea Party faithful to come along with him he is not going to make a deal.
A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Thursday confirmed this calculus:
The poll showed Republicans, especially those aligned with the Tea party, ready to fight for budget cuts. Sixty-eight percent of Tea Party supporters said Republican leaders should stick to their positions on the budget, even if that meant no consensus could be reached. Only 28% advised GOP leaders to compromise. Among all Republicans, 56% called for GOP lawmakers to stick to their positions, while 38% called for compromise.
When Republicans are combined with independents, forming the universe of people that GOP lawmakers are most eager to appeal to at election time, opinion is evenly split—48% to 47%—between those advising compromises against those urging political leaders to stick to their positions, even if it results in no budget agreement.
The bottom line is that the Tea Party has a veto over any deal.
And that leads Democrats to claim the real fight is not between them and the Republican leadership but an intramural fight among Republicans. All this week Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has identified the intransigence of Tea Party freshmen as the only impediment to a deal. Senator Charles Schumer, the New York Democrat, has been happy to have it known that he is using the term “extremist” to describe the Tea Party caucus because he believes that their “extremism’ taints the entire Republican Party.
President Obama rightly notes that Democrats have “matched” the $33 billion in cuts to 2011 budget that the Republican leadership’s originally demanded. He too was pointing at the Tea Party and their refusal to compromise on their demands for $61 billion in cuts when he declared: “The only question is whether politics or ideology is going to get in the way of preventing a government shutdown.”
Tea Party demands for so-called ‘riders’ in the budget bill that deal with controversial social issues like abortion are also detracting from any claim that Tea Party members of Congress are just trying to help the economy by cutting federal spending. What do ‘riders’ to ban funding for Planned Parenthood, global warming, health care and money to close a nuclear waste facility in Nevada – Senate Majority Leader Reid’s home state – have to do with creating jobs or a stronger economy?
Polls show a sharp decline in the public’s opinion of the Tea Party since last fall. Just last week when the Tea Party faithful held a rally on Capitol Hill to insist that the GOP leadership not compromise on a budget deal the turn-out, to be polite, was light to non-existent.
An even bigger problem is the emerging split between the Tea Party’s anti-government influence on the Republican Party and support for more government coming from independent voters. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll in late February found 51 percent of independent voters in favor of a more active federal government. In the same poll 75 percent of Republicans said the government is already doing too much.
The shifting winds led elections expert and National Journal columnist Charlie Cook to write that by giving the Tea Party the power to kill any deal the Republicans in the House may be setting themselves up to have the Democrats retake majority control in the 2012 elections. While admitting that it is early, Cook wrote “the sequence of events that Democrats would need to have a legitimate chance are so far looking increasingly plausible.”
Last fall, when independents voted heavily for Tea Party candidates, only 38 percent of those swing voters said they wanted to government to do more. Clearly, the political winds are blowing away from the Tea Party and that means trouble if Republicans allow a Tea Party veto on the budget.
Live by the Tea Party, die by the Tea Party.
Juan Williams is a writer, author and Fox News political analyst. Click here to read his recent five part piece for Fox News Opinion on "The Children of Juarez" His most recent book is "Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America--and What We Can Do About It."