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The tea party and the debt deal: Fiscal 'terrorists' or principled heroes?

Shrugging off unfavorable polls and harsh criticism from Biden and other Democrats, the tea party faithful take stock of their influence on Capitol Hill's debt deal and look ahead to the next battle.

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"Consider what the towel-snapping Tea Party crazies have already accomplished," writes Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. "They've changed the entire discussion. They've neutralized the White House. They've whipped their leadership into submission. They've taken taxes and revenues off the table. They've withered the stock and bond markets. They've made journalists speak to them as though they're John Calhoun and Alexander Hamilton."

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Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D) of Missouri called the deal a "sugar-coated Satan sandwich," onto which House minority leader Nancy Pelosi piled on, "with a side of Satan fries."

Democrats' anger is understandable: The massive government spending cuts and lack of new revenue sources in the political deal that raises the debt ceiling by $2.4 trillion so the country can meet its fiduciary obligations hints at a shift of power and priorities away from the Democrats philosophy of "good" government growth toward the tea party's goal of scaling back Washington spending and influence.

But political scientists say the tea party can't take all the blame, nor all the plaudits, for the debt deal.

"I think this compromise simply reflects that [government] had gone artificially too far to the left after 2006 and 2008," says James Campbell, a political scientist at SUNY's University at Buffalo. "So this change looks all that more dramatic because it was brought back from that sort of temporarily left of center position to a further right of center position after 2010, which reflected a great deal of disappointment in Obama and Democrats in the first two years."

Moreover, tea party activist Jack Smith of Ellijay, Ga., sees only a "partial victory" in the negotiations, especially since many tea partiers wanted Congress to hold the line on the debt limit in order to force immediate spending reductions in the federal budget.

Yet he acknowledged the debate put the tea party right in the center of Washington's power sphere.

"It was very interesting that the deal couldn't be made until they considered what the tea party might say or how they may react," says Mr. Smith. "The unions … and other organizations have their lobbies; all the tea party really is, is a lobby of the people."

For some, that foundational shift has deeper, even global, roots.

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