The Tea Party's Brand Is Crisis

Activists cheer the U.S.'s credit downgrade as bad news makes them more popular

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When the Tea Party Express's Shea King told a likeminded Wisconsin crowd that "they are blaming the credit downgrade on the Tea Party," her audience erupted in proud cheers. Why? Because the Tea Party, like Harold Camping's now-disappointed followers who bought his promise that the Apocalypse would happen in May, have been preaching about the coming doomsday for some time now: America is on the verge of collapse and new leadership is needed to (at best) change course before it's too late or (more likely) deal with the aftermath. The more bad news only confirms these convictions. Who can blame them for cheering? You know those people who took Glenn Beck's advice and stocked up on gold? They can smile today.

The Tea Party's founding moment is widely credited as the day in February 2009 when Rick Santelli ranted on CNBC that the just-passed $787 billion stimulus package forced taxpayers to start "subsidizing the losers' mortgages." The Dow Jones crashed again in early March 2009, and there were protests across the country against the stimulus by the middle of the month, filled with placards urging America to "WAKE UP" and to "STOP SOCIALISM NOW." The movement began to take on a "the end is nigh" tone. More rallies were held in late summer and early fall of that year. By June 2010, Matthew Continetti wrote for the Weekly Standard that the "Tea Party is unified by the pervasive sense that the country is wildly off course. It believes the establishment has bent and twisted the rules for its own benefit. America, the Tea Partiers believe, is headed for a fiscal reckoning unlike any it has ever seen."
A couple months later, Glenn Beck drew 100,000 of them to the National Mall for his Restoring Honor rally. But perhaps his message--"This country has spent far too long worrying about scars and thinking about scars and concentrating on scars. Today, we are going to concentrate on the good things in America"--wasn't quite doomsday-ish enough. Less than six months later, his ratings were tanking and the price of gold was still climbing.

Now in a time of actual crisis -- the weeks of brinksmanship over the debt ceiling followed by Standard & Poor's dropping the U.S.'s credit rating from AAA to AA+ -- the Tea Party is now running on a feedback loop: the more signs that the country will collapse, the more supporters they get. In the run-up to the debt crisis, Tea Partiers were arguing that we should risk immediate economic calamity by not raising the debt ceiling because of the much longer-term threat of economic calamity from overspending. As The New Yorker's James Surowiecki writes, big business--some of whose leaders funded the Tea Party in last year's elections--should fear the movement and its seeming appetite for economic destruction.

Slate's Dave Weigel observes that the cheering of King's comment--which it seems she'd intended to draw boos--is a lot like the video shot at the Americans for Prosperity summit in which conservatives cheered when they heard America had lost its bid for the 2016 Olympics. "In both cases, some damage has been done to America's reputation. In neither case is Barack Obama entirely responsible. In both cases, he's going to absorb the blame. And because these activists think defeating Barack Obama is necessary to save America, they cheer," Weigel writes. The difference, he says, is  "the role anti-spending, anti-tax activists had in making it happen." That and the stakes. As Surowiecki explains, Republicans are explicitly promising that their method of holding the debt limit hostage is the new normal:
This approach may well be extended to bargaining over budget resolutions as well, with Republicans threatening a government shutdown unless they get what they want. If that sounds improbably reckless, consider that every Republican Presidential candidate except Jon Huntsman came out against the final debt-ceiling deal. Even if you explain this as pandering to Tea Party voters, there's no ignoring the fact that these candidates were advising congressional Republicans to let the United States default. Once games of chicken become the accepted way to resolve budget issues, the U.S. economy will become a much riskier place.
Republicans are seen as doing the bidding of corporate America, he says but in reality, the compromise deal Obama signed is bad for corporate America:
  1. It cuts spending on infrastructure, research, and defense.
  2. It made clear that there will be no stimulus spending to help prevent recession.
  3. It makes it even less likely the Federal Reserve will loosen up its monetary policy.
  4. Its austerity policies will hurt rich people, who now get so much of their income from jobs and the stock market. 

Surowiecki concludes, "The grim truth is that, at this point, we'd be better off if the House Republicans really were the handmaidens of corporate America, rather than ideologues who prefer crisis to compromise. As it is, the G.O.P. has put our money where their mouth is."

So who, exactly, is the "they" the Tea Party Express's King was referring to? For one, Sen. John Kerry. "I believe this is, without question, the tea party downgrade," Kerry said on Meet the Press Sunday. David Axelrod said the same thing. The Washington TimesBen Wolfgang calls this "exactly the kind of blame game that led Standard & Poor's, one of three key credit-ratings agencies, to strip the U.S. federal government of its AAA status Friday night. ... In justifying its actions, S&P cited the political gridlock that continues to paralyze Washington." But S&P singled out one party in justifying its downgrade, Mother Jones' Kevin Drum notes, adding that the Internet is rife with "crowing over the 'Obama downgrade.'" Drum continues:
"S&P made it crystal clear that brinksmanship over the debt ceiling was the reason for the downgrade, and Republicans not only provoked the brinksmanship and bragged about it for months, but have since gleefully promised to repeat their performance at every opportunity. And yet they're now insisting that this is all Obama's fault. It's a display of chutzpah that's shameless even by their standards."
And, in The New Republic's Jonathan Chait's view, the Obama administration is now forced to insist that "Republicans aren't really dangerous maniacs at all," because the S&P's downgrade costs the president more politically than it does Congress. "In other words, a ratings agency has sensibly concluded that the Republican Party poses a long-term threat to the stability of the U.S. financial system, and the Obama administration insists otherwise," Chait writes.
But that little bit of bipartisan spin is unlikely to help things in the long term. The New York Times' Ross Douthat argues that V.O. Key's 1955 essay "A Theory of Critical Elections"--arguing that every 30 to 40 years America has a critical election that realigns the electorate to favor one party or the other--has had a toxic influence on Washington. Everyone's waiting for the next election to solidify their permanent majority, so there's little incentive to compromise.
The dream of realignment... inspires politicians to claim sweeping mandates from highly contingent victories: think of Dick Cheney insisting on another round of deficit-financed tax cuts in 2003 because "we won the midterm elections' and "this is our due," or the near-identical rebukes that President Obama delivered to Eric Cantor ("Elections have consequences--and Eric, I won") and to John McCain ("the election's over") during the debates over the stimulus and health care.
The losers, meanwhile, wax intransigent, while hoping for a realignment of their own. After all, why cut a deal today if tomorrow you might overthrow your rivals permanently? 
Douthat says that while both the Democratic and Republican parties keep putting off real reforms until after the next--and, they hope, transformative--election, America's money problems remain.
The notion of a final showdown is a recurring theme in Tea Party rhetoric. Last March, when Rep. Scott Rigell explained his opposition to raising the debt limit, he stressed the need for America to confront the economic Armageddon approaching: "Like the dangerous mind set of invulnerability that took hold of the captain of the Titanic, I just don't think we can quite grasp the painful reality that America is indeed subject to the laws of finance. ... If we do not change course sharply, there will be a day of reckoning. And that day, in my view, is much closer than most think." It makes you wonder: who is he rooting for, the ship or the iceberg?
Or like Michele Bachmann, who's quickly rising to challenge Mitt Romney as leader of the Republican 2012 pack. Bachmann voted against raising the debt ceiling and called for Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to be fired in the wake of the country's credit rating downgrade by S&P. "President Obama is destroying the foundations of our economy one beam at a time," Bachmann said on Fox News. "This is not an embarrassment to the nation. This is a very serious, historically significant event that's just occurred. Again, since 1917, we've had a AAA credit rating. This is more than historically significant. We're all very concerned about what will happen and transpire with the markets on Monday morning. We aren't sure what investors will do." But a gal can hope, right?
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.