By David Lightman McClatchy Newspapers
WASHINGTON — The tea party lost. Big.
It and its well-funded allies tried every tactic — daring President Barack Obama to tinker with the Affordable Care Act, tying up the Senate and insisting on dramatically reduced government spending.
In the end, it got nothing. Obamacare survives without a scratch. Longer-term budget issues will be hashed out later. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who led a marathon talkathon last month, not only failed to create any momentum for his cause, he wound up alienating party colleagues. At the same time, public support for the tea party dropped.
“The tea party is less popular than ever, with even many Republicans now viewing the movement negatively,” said a Pew Research Center poll released Wednesday. It found that nearly half the public had an unfavorable opinion of the movement, while 30 percent had a favorable opinion.
Tea party loyalists tried Wednesday to ease the pain, insisting they lost a round but the bigger battle goes on.
“I think you’re going to see something happening over the next year and a half,” said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho. People increasingly realize, he said, “there’s a group of (us) in Washington, D.C., who are not listening to special interests and are listening to the people.”
Maybe so, but they’re not getting much done today.
Wednesday’s deal ended, at least for now, the tea party’s relentless crusade to repeal, defund or dilute the health care law, a law it sees as emblematic of big, intrusive government.
This fall, the tea party saw its most alluring vehicles for change yet. Defund or delay Obamacare, the tea partiers said, or we won’t agree to keep the government running after Oct. 1. Nor will we go along with a higher debt limit if the nation exhausts its borrowing authority Oct. 17.
The goal seemed quixotic, but what the heck, the tea party had tilted at some of America’s sturdiest windmills before and done fine. The disparate movement sprung up almost organically in 2009, and the next year it helped elect 87 Republican freshmen to the House of Representatives. It also helped knock off some mainstream Republican Senate candidates in 2010 and 2012, albeit with conservatives who sometimes couldn’t win general elections.
The tea party was on the march, fueled by a sympathetic media echo chamber on talk radio and Fox News, eager volunteers and generous contributors. By January 2011, Republicans controlled the House and, more important, dozens of Republicans owed their jobs to the tea party.
By last year, though, it became clear the movement faced trouble. It was exceedingly rigid in its no-compromise stance, and that’s simply not how things get done in a political environment. The tea party’s successes the last few months tended to be as naysayers, as House Republican leaders had to back off seeking votes on a fiscal cliff tax plan, transportation and housing funding and farm programs.
The tea party mattered, so the stage seemed set for a defining duel over Obamacare. In the Senate, most Republicans were reluctant to tie health care to government funding, but the tea party was relentless.
The tea party persuaded wary House Republican leaders to link the two. Cruz stood on the Senate floor for more than 21 hours on Sept. 24-25, trying to rally public support for defunding Obamacare. The Senate refused to go along.
On Sept. 30, as the clock ticked toward the first government shutdown in 17 years, the House again tried to delay part of the health care law. The Senate said no.
The narrative didn’t change in October. House Republican leaders shifted demands on Obamacare, and eventually dropped Obamacare altogether. We’ll raise the debt limit for a while, they said last week, but not reopen the government. Obama said no again.
Tuesday, the tea party tried one last stand. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, tried to fashion an alternative to the plan that was announced Wednesday. Tea party conservatives, as well as some Republican moderates this time, protested. The Boehner idea collapsed.
Wednesday, with Republicans in the Senate signing a deal with Democrats as the clock wound toward a possible government default, about all the tea party could do was complain loudly and vow to fight.
“The ruling elites in Washington, D.C., have completely abandoned the American people,” said Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator of one tea party group, the Tea Party Patriots. “The Senate deal is a complete sellout.”
The Club for Growth, an anti-tax group, urged a no vote and vowed to remember in the November 2014 elections. FreedomWorks, another tea party group, warned the deal looked like “a surrender from the GOP and a defeat for Boehner.”
Martin said that in addition to Obamacare, her group’s attention would turn to immigration legislation.
Loyalists still have their nemesis, Obama, to kick around.
And the movement’s message of individual empowerment, and distrust of Washington and Wall Street, still carries clout in many quarters.
Be patient, urged Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. More fights are ahead, he said, and “the debt will be bigger and Obamacare will be more unpopular.”
The movement has been jolted, and a virtual statement of surrender by Boehner on Wednesday said it all. The tea party had lost.
“The House has fought with everything it has to convince the president of the United States to engage in bipartisan negotiations aimed at addressing our country’s debt and providing fairness for the American people under Obamacare,” he said.
“That fight will continue. But blocking the bipartisan agreement reached today by the members of the Senate will not be a tactic for us.”