The Tea Party Is Damaging Its Credibility in the Way It Can Least Afford

A faction that faces doubts about its ability to govern responsibly has foolishly associated itself with default and government shutdown.
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On issues like drones, executive power, and NSA spying, some Tea Party leaders have taken principled stands that set them apart from their GOP colleagues.

It is vital that those particular Tea Partiers stay in Congress. The U.S. is well-served by the bipartisan civil-liberties collaborations among (e.g.) Senator Ron Wyden, Senator Rand Paul, and Representative Justin Amash. Some Tea Partiers played a role in avoiding an imprudent war in Syria, too. The political press ignores issues like those when it portrays Tea Party legislators as uniquely irresponsible ideologues pushing their party to adopt dangerous policies. Recall that when Republicans were last in power, the most catastrophic policies were collaborative efforts between the establishment and the neocons, who don't like the Tea Partiers because they're insufficiently bellicose. The GOP establishment spent $6 trillion on wars of choice (!), abetted by pro-war, Patriot Act-supporting Democrats like Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and John Kerry, whose reckless ideology and irresponsible votes go mostly unmentioned*.

Tea Partiers should nevertheless understand that, fairly or unfairly, they're saddled with a reputation for unusual recklessness. Voters aren't sure whether they can be trusted to govern. That's why their behavior in the debt-ceiling standoff is so idiotic. Paul and Amash, whose principled stands I frequently cheer, and Senator Ted Cruz, whose phony affect makes me mistrust him, could demonstrate themselves to be staunch fiscal conservatives and fight for small government in any number of ways. They could embark upon any number of long-term strategies for reforming public policy in line with their beliefs. Among all the fights they could pick, why choose the debt-ceiling?

Stupid, stupid, stupid! 

A refusal to raise the debt ceiling isn't a conscientious stand on a matter of principle, like religious liberty or due process or preventing the deaths of innocents. This particular stand will do nothing to solve America's fiscal problems or to persuade the public that small-government solutions are preferable. The very best scenario, if you're a fiscal conservative, is for the debt ceiling to be raised after President Obama concedes some significant decrease in spending, which is extremely. If the debt ceiling isn't raised, the threat of which is the only Tea Party leverage, it could cause significant harm to the country's fiscal standing, putting the United States even deeper in the hole. 

For all those reasons, picking this fight plays into every negative Tea Party stereotype. It makes Tea Party legislators seem like reckless ideologues who operate inside an information bubble, not principled men with pragmatic governing styles. It's one thing to be intransigent on matters of great consequence that implicate core beliefs or will forever change the trajectory of the nation. It is quite another thing to be intransigent on a matter that would be of little consequence if you hadn't yourself chosen it for a high-risk, low-reward fight. One begins to suspect that this isn't about better governance at all.

The downside possibilities of the government shutdown are less dire, but it too plays into the narrative of Republicans unable to deliver pragmatic governance, a lesson you'd have thought that the GOP would have learned during the last shutdown.

As Daniel Larison notices

... the Republican Party as a whole was much more well-liked in the mid-’90s than it has been in the last seven years, and so was less likely to suffer serious political damage from clashes with the president. As much as GOP unfavorability has increased recently, it has been very high since it rose above 50% during Bush’s second term. It is almost five years since Bush left office, and the party was only just barely stating to recover from the loss of public trust and favor that it experienced during his tenure. The last two weeks have quickly undone that halting recovery. The Bush legacy continues to be a drag on the party’s prospects, and that reminds people of what can happen when Republicans run the government. Because of that, the current GOP has a much higher bar to clear to prove that it deserves to regain the public’s trust, and it puts them in a significantly weaker position in almost any confrontation with the administration than Republicans in the ’90s were.

The Tea Party bears no responsibility for the catastrophes of the Bush years, but movement politicians must keep in mind that the GOP, once regarded as America's sober, grownup party, isn't now trusted by the public to govern competently.

It needs to earn back its credibility on that subject.

Some Republicans, like Chris Christie, are taking pains to seem as if they are competent pragmatists. That's always an easier task for governors than legislators, but when the legislators behave as Tea Party Republicans have in recent weeks, they do damage to their prospects for accruing influence or elevating members. I wouldn't want Tea Party legislators to betray their ideals or their consciences to appear more sober, but enabling the United States to pay its bills and keep its government running is hardly a betrayal of anyone's principles!

The good news for the Tea Party is that, presuming the debt ceiling is soon raised and the government ultimately reopened, this whole episode will likely matter less than you'd think from coverage in the political press. As Nate Silver notes, "Remember Syria? The fiscal cliff? Benghazi? The IRS scandal? The collapse of immigration reform? All of these were hyped as game-changing political moments by the news media, just as so many stories were during the election last year. In each case, the public's interest quickly waned once the news cycle turned over to another story. Most political stories have a fairly short half-life and won't turn out to be as consequential as they seem at the time."

Perhaps Tea Party politicians will extricate themselves from this situation and suffer only marginally. But if they're ever to affect the United States more than Barry Goldwater did, they'd better figure out that voters are risk averse and won't elevate pols who seem like they might blow up the system if they don't get all they want. As Tea Partiers engage in a high-stakes standoff for the sake of concessions that would do little to advance their ideological project, they seem like people who might blow up the system if they don't get everything they want.

The Tea Party ought to be able to do better. "Rand Paul is more in touch with the public mood on national security issues than a lot of G.O.P. foreign policy hands, Mike Lee has a better tax plan than any of his fellow Republican senators, Heritage Action is absolutely right about farm subsidies and the House G.O.P. leadership is wrong … I’ve been over this before, but it bears repeating: If you’re looking for policy innovation on the right, the populist wing is mostly where the action is," Ross Douthat correctly observes. "And yet none of this matters right now, because the current populist strategy isn’t going to work, isn’t going to make the populist’s ideas or the Republican Party more popular, and has marched the entire party into a cul-de-sac from which, it seems, only the uncourageous dealmaking K Street-friendly leadership types can rescue it."

Pursuing a liberty-minded, small-government agenda need not involve reckless standoffs that risk America's credit, but you'd never know that from the last few weeks. It's frustrating as hell for those of us hungering for a credible Republican alternative to K Street, warmongering, and a liberty-destroying national-security state.

___

*They're all drug warriors too.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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