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.

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.

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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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