Tea Partiers Come to Washington, Bringing a New Dynamic to Capitol Hill

What Jon Stewart amusingly but inaccurately dubbed “Indecision 2010” is finally over. The polls have closed and voters were decisive. Now things get interesting. America is once again under divided government and the battle lines are drawn: Republicans on the Hill vs. Democrats in the White House, John Boehner vs. Barack Obama. What comes next? Will the president outflank his rivals with deft compromises? Will 2011 end with a government shutdown as in 1995? Does the Democratic defeat in 2010 signify the right wing’s lasting revival or guarantee a victory for the left wing in 2012?

That’s one story line. But the changing Democrat-Republican dynamic, in some sense, is just the sideshow to the election. After all, we’ve seen this battle before. Barack Obama, the arugula-munching, Reinhold Neihbur-quoting academic, and John Boehner, the Gucci-wearing, golf-playing veteran pol are nothing new in Washington. Like Clinton and Gingrich and Bush and Pelosi before them, the president and the speaker have spent years breathing the rarified air in America’s halls of power.

The newcomers to Capitol Hill, however, are another matter entirely. Ron Johnson and Rand Paul are grassroots, extreme, and untested. They’re not from D.C. and they act like it. They don’t believe in compromise and they want to shut down the Department of Education. They like Republican politicians more than Democratic politicians, but they don’t really trust any of the lot. The arrival of Johnson, Paul, and company in D.C. opens a potentially deeper fault line in the city’s political drama. It’s the good old boys’ club versus the reformers. We’re no longer contemplating mere party warfare. We may see something altogether uglier: intra-party warfare between populists and elites.

Intra-party warring has broken out before, but not too often. In 1896, Democratic President Grover Cleveland was disowned by his own party for his opposition to the pro-silver, populist platform led by William Jennings Bryan. In 1976, Ronald Reagan, riding a wave of grassroots libertarianism, came within a hairsbreadth of defeating President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination. On these rare occasions, members of each party’s base—those who normally dutifully go to the polls, get behind their party of choice, and vote for that party’s candidates—revolted. What we’re seeing here is a cruder and more uncomfortable version of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and it is impossible to predict the outcome of such a struggle.

The Tea Partiers’ main strength is also their greatest weakness: they are angry ideologues who are new to the game. Paul, Johnson, and their cohorts are basically a single-issue bunch, and the issue they focus on is the deficit. The upside of anger is that, because the deficit keeps Americans up at night, the Tea Partiers’ focus gives them both electoral clout and clarity of purpose. The downside to being rage-fueled deficit warriors is that it makes compromise—the bread and butter of policymaking—difficult. The prescriptions on the far right for taming the deficit are, to put it kindly, unrealistic. You cannot, as they recommend, cut the Department of Education while maintaining the Bush tax cuts, Social Security, and Medicare spending and expect the deficit to disappear. You have to jettison the tax cuts, raise taxes, or cut entitlements. None of these are appealing options for first-term legislators.

So what happens when the Tea Partiers come to Washington? Do they decide to push for cuts to Social Security? Do they buy Rep. Paul Ryan’s comprehensive plan to trim the deficit, which his Republican colleagues have spent the past year trying to avoid? If they take the former route, the inexperienced Tea Partiers risk losing their popularity back home. If they take the latter route, they’ll face fierce resistance from a Republican elite worried about garnering votes. Or, if they wanted to make the next two years far less exciting, they could fall in line behind John Boehner (a.k.a. Bush 2.0).

You can argue a lot of points against the Tea Partiers, but at least some of them, though ideologically muddled, seem to mean what they say. At least initially, the famous Republican message discipline will be elusive. And no matter what the end outcome, the process of adjustment between Republican elites and the grassroots rebels will be well worth watching. Stay tuned.

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