Imagine you’re at home or at work, going about your normal business, when you learn that a small band of zealots has taken over the town hall. They have hostages. As word spreads, all regular activity stops. Townspeople mill fretfully about the square, wondering whether the ongoing drama will end in a horrifying disaster or a negotiated surrender. Cable TV is all over the story, misinforming the world 24/7. And then, finally, after agonizing hours of tension, the all-absorbing crisis ends. Life goes back to normal.
Or does it?
This is essentially what just happened during the debt-ceiling crisis, albeit on a national scale and with a threat of only economic, and not real, violence. The GOP’s House tea party members abruptly hijacked a fairly routine congressional vote and threatened to send the United States into first-time default in order to fight a proxy war over their singular agenda of shrinking the federal government. Everyone’s attention was focused on the handful of hostage-takers, who basked in that 15 minutes of fame occasionally enjoyed by slightly crazed nobodies with high-caliber weapons (in this case ballots, not bullets).
The only remaining question is: Were the zealots who briefly took over Washington in the summer of 2011 just a bunch of loonies, destined to be discredited and possibly thrown out of town in the next election? Or were the tea partiers more like budget-slashing versions of John Brown, the uncompromising abolitionist who led a dramatic takeover of a federal armory in 1859, arguably setting the nation on course to the Civil War? Were they, in other words, somewhat admirable monomaniacs who, while they may have done damage to America’s economy and reputation, were fighting for the right cause, forcing a complacent nation to pay attention in the only way left to them?
Whether this unique standoff was more like an economic Harpers Ferry—the first shots fired in a just war over the size of government—or a morbidly entertaining horror show along the lines of, say, Dog Day Afternoon, is a tougher question than you might think. Yes, it’s tempting to dismiss the tea party factionalists who started this as economically illiterate yahoos who have thrown an already staggering economy into greater peril. The worst thing you can do at a juncture like this, with growth at an alarmingly slow 1.3 percent in the second quarter, is to cut spending, and that’s what is about to happen. Liberal commentators are apoplectic over the stupidity of it—and seething at President Obama’s concessions. After I read Paul Krugman’s latest New York Times column on Monday, in which he called the deal “a catastrophe on multiple levels … [that] will take America a long way down the road to banana-republic status,” I briefly thought of calling an ambulance for him.
On the other hand, it’s also true that Washington has, until now, proved itself all but incapable of changing its spending habits. The tea party movement that arrayed itself against this long-entrenched tendency of Big Government to get bigger didn’t come out of nowhere. It resulted from a slow burn over years of betrayal by the conservatives’ own kind, a trend that started, frankly, with Ronald Reagan (Remember David Stockman and The Triumph of Politics?) and ended with George W. Bush. What became the tea party began to emerge during the 2000s, when Bush loaded up the deficit with two wars and tax cuts without paying for them. He was part of a generation of “modernizing conservatives,” as Republican commentator James Pinkerton put it to me last autumn, who “made peace with Big Government” and merely looked for ways to reduce it on the margins.
Meanwhile, the United States has become a Mancur Olson nation, referring to the late, great University of Maryland economist who theorized that the demands of ever-multiplying special-interest groups in Washington usually trump the needs of the common good; worse, these groups pile up over time and cause sclerosis in the system. That’s why government programs tend to accumulate: It’s much easier to get something into the budget than out.
Obama, unwittingly, lit the match to a giant tinderbox of Rage on the Right that had been building for 30 years. Perhaps something this crazy and dramatic was more or less destined to happen.
Now, with the vote done, there is talk that the tea partiers have been somewhat domesticated, and that we can all turn back to our real problems. After all, 26 tea party-aligned House members, nearly half, voted for the debt deal.
Don’t bet on it. I suspect that this small taste of victory—forcing Obama to back down on his demand for “balancing” tax hikes—will only whet the extremists’ appetite for more. Even some liberals who are appalled at the lopsided nature of the deal admit that they were impressed with the tea party’s ability to seize the agenda. “I actually take my hat off to the tea party,” one former Democratic Senate aide said. “You need a big lever, a solid place to stand, brass balls, and the willingness to march into hell for a heavenly cause to change business as usual in D.C.”
They did. Jared Bernstein, Vice President Joe Biden’s former chief economist, conceded in an interview on Monday that he resigned this year because Washington no longer had enough “oxygen” left for a real discussion of real economic problems. “The debate is so upside down,” he said. “I know the president wants to pivot and focus on jobs more, but he’s been stuck.”
Great! So now at last we can move forward, right? But oh, wait, Congress has left town for the summer. See you in September, no doubt at the next crisis.
This article appears in the August 6, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.