09 October 2013

Win First, Then Go to War: Thoughts on Tea Party Strategy

Reactions to the government shutdown range from fear to exasperation. The market seems genuinely disturbed, while the Finance Ministers, Presidents, and Prime Ministers of dozens of countries gently remind the US that the economy is international and that our crisis is theirs. It’s also telling that though both incidents proved to be (more or less) unrelated to the shutdown, neither journalists nor the public were surprised at the two deaths in DC last week and both were ready to fit them into a narrative of a country and a world on the brink.

But there is at least one group of Americans that is more resilient than worried, that sees this impasse as a crucible instead of a noose: the 20 percent of voters who identify with the Tea Party.

If we seem to be dedicating a lot of posts to the Tea Party it’s because we are. Economic crises can cause massive political and economic shifts, and the Tea Party is the only big, organized group in the political mainstream responding to this one with anything other than the hope that if we ignore our problems they will go away. The Tea Party is a movement, whether we like it or not, and they have a plan for the future, disgusting and unimaginable as it may be. Their actions must be interpreted as strategy.

Let’s try that.

Most people, and most media outlets, have approached the shutdown asking “Why would anyone do such a thing?” The Tea Party is demonized in these reports. Pundits gleefully note that support for the Tea Party is falling. Popular blame rests on it, the GOP in general, and Speaker Boehner, for the shutdown. But people also blame Obama, Harry Reid, and the Democrats for the shutdown. They also blame Congress as a whole.

There are, however, 435 people whom nobody blames—individual members of Congress.

It’s a truism that people hate Congress but like their Congressperson, and it is unlikely that the current crisis will prove the exception—nobody blames, cares, or even knows about filibustering Senator Ted Cruz, for example. The still enormous popular support for the Tea Party among many Republicans, especially those who actually voted them into Congress, would make it difficult if not impossible for the GOP to dislodge enough of them through primary challenges with more moderate Republicans. And since incumbents have the advantage in a general election, it seems safe to say that most of the members of the so called “suicide caucus” will not die on the House floor this month and stand a good chance of returning to Congress in 2014.

I can think of three possible outcomes of the shutdown, and all of them are victories for the Tea Party:
  1. The House passes a “clean” federal budget (one that doesn't involve defunding Obamacare), or passes a bill that would fund the federal government during a negotiation period. Global financial crisis is averted. This scenario involves a number of recalcitrant Republican Representatives to vote with their more moderate comrades. Those who do so can appear pragmatic to their constituents. Those who don’t look like they’re holding their ground and standing up to a Socialist Obama and a wishy-washy Boehner. Boehner is blamed for taking so long, and appears weak. Obama is blamed because he is the President. The Democrats look good—better than the GOP—but this bump in the polls disappears after a few months. The Tea Party as a whole loses popularity, but succeeds in redefining the realm of political maneuvering and in moving the debate further to the right.
  2. The Democrats cave and sign a bill that defunds Obamacare, paving the way for a hellish debt-ceiling debate next week. Obama loses the crown jewel of his political legacy, and the Democrats in general appear completely impotent. The Tea Party revels in its unexpected victory, while the rest of the GOP realizes that they might be on to something.
  3. No deal is reached or bill signed before the debt ceiling deadline arrives. Many Republicans have begun to question whether or not passing that deadline would really be that bad, claiming that it would not actually cause a default on interest payments. Most financial experts, however, agree that this would cause a serious global economic disaster. In this scenario, all bets are off. If blame for this financial meltdown falls on the Tea Party and the GOP’s brinkmanship, they could tank politically as voters and financiers abandon them in favor of the Democrats—though as noted above it can be difficult to make political consequences stick to Congresspersons. If, instead, Obama is blamed, he would join the ranks of Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, and James Buchanan as a President remembered for the disaster he presided over and nothing else.
Good strategists don’t start fights they can’t win, and if you ask me the Tea Party has some good strategists. This is a battle that they were ready for, at a perfect time, and with few negative consequences (other than the suffering of thousands during the shutdown).

Given this, the challenge isn't to find new ways to bemoan the Tea Party or its constituents. Instead we should be trying to craft a left/progressive alternative to austerity and neoliberalism, to promote that alternative nationally and internationally, and to organize people to put it into action. You lose battles in war. The enemy may have won this battle, and they might win the few too. If they’re going to be stopped, we have to get ready, and get organized.

1 comment:

  1. There's also the possibility that Obama will use the power of the executive to override the debt ceiling and prevent a default. (If it comes to that, let's hope he's got the chutzpah to do it). It's a pretty sticky issue constitutionally, so if he does it he risks impeachment and having the second half of his presidency defined by a Republican lunatic circus. I seriously doubt he'll cave on Obamacare, since he knows that if that's not at least part of his legacy, he'll only be remembered for presiding over economic stagnation and drone warfare.