Following the decisive victory by the man they vowed three-and-a-half years ago to pry out of the White House, the antigovernment tea party movement found itself reassessing its role within a fractured Republican Party that faced broad electoral disappointments on Election Day.
President Obama’s reelection represents the fifth time in the last six presidential cycles the Republican candidate has failed to win the popular vote. The GOP is now in full soul-searching mode, with the tea party especially facing criticism for its social and fiscal issue-driven co-opting of the Republican national agenda to which all contenders, including Mitt Romney, had to kneel during the primaries.
“In a lot of ways, the tea party movement was repudiated in the election,” says Joshua Dyck, a University of Massachusetts-Lowell political science professor and co-director of the Center for Public Opinion. “Part of the problem is that the tea party has had a hard time figuring out what it’s all about. Is it about Sarah Palin [social] conservatism or is the tea party about budget conservatism?”
Yet tea party activists across the US also awoke Wednesday with the knowledge that their small government agenda still wields significant clout in the House, through which Obama must take any and all plans designed to raise taxes and slash a runaway deficit and mounting national debt.
Indeed, tea party activists – whose agenda has the approval of about a third of Americans – began quickly to sort through the electoral ashes, calibrating new ways to lead the GOP and achieve its chief goal – saving the republic from a looming calamity of fiscal profligacy.
“Defeat does not weaken the tea party,” says Brigitte Nacos, a political scientist at Columbia University who studies the GOP’s tea party splinter coalition. “The real topic is the tea party now, and it’s not only Republicans that have to deal with it, but also the president has to now deal with it.”
Yet given the country’s vote Tuesday, at least one tea party blogger suggested that studied compromise may have to replace the line-in-the-sand absolutism that left last year’s negotiations on the debt ceiling in bitter shambles and helped turn American opinion against the movement.
One suggestion floated by tea party members to break the fiscal gridlock would be to craft a spending deal similar to that struck by President Bill Clinton in 1997 – raising marginal tax rates across the board while slashing deficit spending. The tack, experts say, might allow a term-limited Obama to strike a substantial and meaningful across-the-aisle legislative deal to avoid potentially plunging the US into another recession.
Political scientists and tea party activists also suggested that such a deal could actually be brokered by the former president, as Professor Nocas says has been discussed, especially given Mr. Clinton’s 11th hour role on the Obama campaign trail.
“I definitely think it would behoove Obama to put Bill Clinton in charge of outreach, because Barack Obama frankly doesn’t know how to make a deal on the Hill,” says Scott Boston, a St. Louis-based tea party activist and blogger.
“The fact is, Bill Clinton’s budget was $1.2 trillion smaller than Obama’s budget, so, given that, though I’m not for higher taxes, I’m willing to trade a higher tax rate in return for $1.2 trillion in spending cuts,” Mr. Boston says. “Either way, we need to talk about the Clinton philosophy towards making the country go again, which was, ‘I’ll meet you on tax side if you meet on spending side.’ ”
“If they want to put that ’97 budget deal on the table, that sounds attractive to me,” says Matt Kibbe, the CEO of the anti-tax group Freedom Works and coauthor of “Give Us Liberty: A tea party manifesto.”
“It seems like there’s more pressure on the president,” says Kibbe. “We had a status quo election and the president must have known that this fiscal train wreck is coming, it’s there for everyone to see, and how is he going to lead in this situation? He’s not going to be able to demagogue the rich, because you could tax them at 100 percent and you couldn’t fix this problem.”
Indicating new Republican flexibility, House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio said Wednesday that the GOP is open to discussing tax increases "under the right conditions" to get deficits under control.
Until now, Obama has pushed for more moderate deficit cuts offset by raising taxes on “the rich,” or couples making more than $250,000 a year. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the problem with Obama’s tack is that it doesn’t go far enough to reduce the deficit and the nation’s record $16 trillion debt in a significant way. The president has also refused to make deep cuts and reforms to social programs, as Republicans have demanded in their budgets.
A more likely scenario than Bill Clinton returning to the federal budget table is that establishment Republicans either have to maneuver the negotiations away from the House’s tea party coalition or force ultra-conservative members to bend into compromise – a tall order, suggests Professor Dyck, at the Center for Public Opinion.
“Can these people who have been lobbing bombs at each other, the president and the tea party, step away from the rhetorical campaign and come up with a negotiation on the fiscal cliff in about 16 days?” wonders Dyck. “I think the tea party is going to fight it kicking and screaming, because it is, ultimately, an ideologically pure movement.”
Indeed, moderate Republicans and right-leaning independents have argued that the tea party has pulled the GOP too far to the right while indulging out-of-the-mainstream scuttlebutt around Obama’s citizenship, racialized commentary, off-putting declarations about rape and women’s bodies, and xenophobic immigration talk.
“President Obama was forced in the debates to call himself the president of reining in big government. That was unthinkable four years ago,” Mr. Meckler said. “The entire nature of the debate in the United States has changed because of the tea party movement.”
National Review Online columnist Michael Tanner suggests the reelection of vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan back to the House (even as Wisconsin overall leaned to Obama) suggests that the core tea party message – smaller, less expensive central government – still resonates.
According to exit polls Tuesday, some 51 percent of voters say government already does too much, versus 44 percent who believe the government should do more.
“It’s important that Democratic efforts to turn the Ryan budget and Medicare into a bludgeon failed,” writes Mr. Tanner. “Democratic gains in the House were negligible; nearly all Republicans who voted for the Ryan budget were reelected,” and Romney fought Obama to a draw on Medicare issues in Florida.
The GOP’s civil war between moderates and small government tea party insurgents may come into focus quickly, and burn brightly, suggests Ms. Nacos. Yet Obama will hardly be able to stand idly by, enjoying the show, she adds.
“We will see very quickly with a lot of important issues in Congress whether there is less or more influence of the tea party, but this also depends what the Obama administration and Democrats do,” she says.
“The president really has to use his political capital the right way,” she adds, “and he now has an opportunity to be a better communicator, to explain to the public what is at stake and why things are not being done.”