Why the Tea Party Will Live On

The fiscal-cliff deal shows that government just can't stop getting bigger.

AP Photo/David Goldman

Crazies. Cliff divers. Nihilists. Nutjobs. Those are just a few of the descriptions being applied to the 151 House Republicans who broke with Speaker John Boehner--they included his own supposed wing men, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Whip Kevin McCarthy--to vote against the fiscal cliff deal Tuesday night.

In truth, what the fine print of the bill demonstrates is that the Republicans who refused to vote for the fiscal compromise had every right to be disgusted by it--that is, if you expect legislators to hold true at all to the beliefs that inspired them to run for office in the first place. The last-minute deal exposed Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as creatures of the old system, and it ripped the scab off whatever healing had occurred between the Republican traditionalists and the tea partiers since then. Make no mistake: The divide within the GOP will continue, demonstrating that the tea-party rebellion lives on in the new House.  

Tuesday's "no" votes represented a wide variety of views. But many GOP House members were appalled at the failure to cut spending or change traditional ways of doing business, especially what The Washington Post noted was "dozens of rider provisions that had nothing to do with the cliff" (including one that kicked over $12 billion over ten years to the renewable-energy industry; another that will benefit the owners of auto-racing tracks in the amount of $78 million; and a $1 million break for coal-mining operations on Indian lands). The House members opposed to this old way--as naïve as they often sound--make up the core of a legitimate resistance movement in American politics, one that is trying to stop the relentless tendency of U.S. government to grow ever larger and more complex, and one that remains frustrated at the continuing inability of its representatives, both Republican and Democrat, to rein that tendency in.

Under the provisions of this pork-laden, special-interest-infected bill--the "24,000 words of small type," as the Post put it--the tax system will change, somewhat. Spending habits will not. Other than making permanent most of the Bush tax cuts, the bill only puts off a reckoning on cuts in government and the $15 trillion in debt that the tea partiers have been chasing after since they roared into power in 2010--indeed since far longer than that.

Fault them if you will as primitivist monomaniacs. Question whether they are sincere enough to surrender their own Social Security and Medicare as well as everyone else's. But many tea party-affiliated members are true believers who have a long memory of Republican betrayal as well as enmity toward the Democrats. They know that despite the "Reagan revolution" three decades ago government has only grown bigger; that the various eruptions of conservative rebellion since the Reagan era, including the Gingrich-led takeover of the House in 1994, each amounted to little more than one step forward, two steps back. (Remember David Stockman and The "Triumph of Politics"?) They know that George W. Bush blew the budget out entirely, loading up the deficit with two wars, tax cuts and Medicare spending without paying for them. (Obama barely added to this deficit himself; his mistake was in failing to understand the tidal wave of populist conservative anger headed his way, especially when he pushed  for health care reform hard upon his multitrillion-dollar bailout and stimulus in 2009.)

Presented by

Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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