Let’s get a few things out of the way. Sorry, E.J. Dionne, but what you and other liberal pundits have been writing wishfully since 2010 — that the tea party movement is a passing phenomenon — is as wrong now as it was then. Tea partiers may be unpopular in the nation’s media meccas, but they are a growing grassroots agglomeration that is going to have much bigger impact on politics than “Gang of Eight”-style compromisers, at least for a long while to come.
That’s because they see themselves as fighting for a principle as sacrosanct as the one their opponent, President Obama, has laid out. Obama is saying now, as he has since the beginning of the year, that he will no longer negotiate in a government-by-hostage-crisis atmosphere. The tea partiers are saying now, as they have for three years, that they will no longer tolerate government growth as usual — in this case, the advent of a new program, Obamacare, that they know will become yet another irremovable and permanent node of big government if it goes fully into effect. And the only tool they have left is the debt ceiling.
It’s a little like the abortion debate. At odds here are two irreconcilable principles. It is, therefore, a dispute that can’t be resolved on principle. It must be muddled through. And that is why, Mr. President, at some point soon — though not this week, not yet, surely — you are going to have that “conversation” that Speaker John Boehner so badly wants.
Yes, Mr. President, you have ample reason to continue saying no, just as you are doing now. (The latest Tuesday morning: “The president called the speaker again today to reiterate that he won’t negotiate on a government funding bill or debt limit increase,” Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said.) You are right: Obamacare is now law, duly passed by Congress and then smiled upon by a majority of both the electorate and the Supreme Court in 2012. There is no chance you can give up any piece of your greatest domestic achievement. You are also right to say that the world’s only superpower, the sole stabilizing force on the planet, cannot continue to govern like a car on the fritz, stopping and starting and stopping again and never getting out of first gear because its drivers don’t know when the next gas station (read: budget) is coming along.
But you are still not going to win against the tea party movement and its perfect sock puppet, John Boehner, whose will is no longer his own. The tea partiers are simply not going away. Amply funded by the Kochs and grass-roots supporters, and even by Big Tobacco and some Wall Streeters, they will continue to pile on GOP primary challenges that will keep Republican incumbents in a state of electoral terror leading up to 2014. And as wild and unrestrained as their rhetoric sometimes is, especially in demonizing Obamacare, the tea partiers are not making their deeper grievances up. They are sincerely motivated by seemingly unstoppable tendency of the federal government to grow larger, and the failure of both parties to limit it over many decades. The U.S. government has achieved many fine things over the last 60 years or so. It won a world war, reordered the global system, put a man on the moon, and created the Internet. But it has also metastasized like a giant tumor, especially since World War II. A 2006 study by the Federal Reserve of St. Louis showed only small growth from 1792 until World War II (with a spike during WWI), but then a relentless steady rise since a brief fall-off in war spending in the late 1940s. By 2004, the federal government was spending $7,100 per capita, nearly 55 times more than was spent per capita in the 1910s, the Fed study said.
That trend has resisted even past GOP efforts to stop it, under Ronald Reagan and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and it sped up under both George W. Bush and Obama, one of the Fed study’s authors, Russell Rhine, an economist at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, said in an interview. “Whenever new programs get enacted, they don’t go away, and that is why this whole tea party backlash against Obamacare is so strong.” It’s also why government-by-crisis will probably continue, perhaps even become something of a new normal. The fear of the conservative right is what it has been for some time: that the Republican establishment will simply find a way to accommodate this growth, without really fighting it. As Nathan Mehrens, the head of Americans for Limited Government — a tea-party-affiliated group — puts it: “The typical Republican response is to say, ‘We have good managers. We can make it work, tweak it around the edges, make it more efficient.’ I just don’t think that’s going to happen.”
And despite the growing public backlash against the shutdown — with more Americans blaming Republicans than the president — tea party libertarians are experiencing a thrilling frisson of what their ideal world of much less government might look like. “Eighty-three percent of the government is still up and running. The portions deemed non-essential do make you wonder what is the proper size of government,” says Jenny Beth Martin, the Georgia-based co-founder of Tea Party Patriots. Martin insists she never wanted the government to shut down, and agrees that “the entire country is tired of this brinksmanship. We need more stability in the government.” But she adds: “The only way to take action is through brinksmanship.”
And so the only reasonable response of Obama — or some proxy, like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — is to pluck something from out of the box, like a renewal of the discussion on a balanced budget strategy, or some concession on spending levels only tangentially or unrelated to Obamacare, and to offer it up to Boehner. Obama is right to be wary of a “grand bargain,” since Boehner walked away from one before when his right-wing masters yanked the leash. But despite the speaker’s reported pledge to avoid a debt default, he will continue to bow to his tea party bosses at least through the 2014 election. And that means he will need a face-saving way out of the current game of chicken over a continuing resolution and the debt limit. lt will go on longer, probably right up against the Oct. 17 deadline. But one way or another, Obama’s going to have to blink.
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