As the (essential, unpaid) janitors of the Great American Shutdown of 2013 sweep the red solo cups and crepe paper streamers out of Capitol Hill in anticipation of tonight's vote, a small group of lawmakers are still waiting for everyone else to show up to their party. Those lawmakers, the conservative, Tea Party Republicans who decided in the first place that a shutdown threat could lead to the end of Obamacare as we know it, are now condemning the Senate deal to reopen the government and avoid a default. With just hours to go until Thursday's debt ceiling deadline, the Tea Party has no viable option on the table. Except, that's not how they're seeing it.
The list of lawmakers planning to vote "no" on the proposal is short but growing — we know Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are nays, for one thing. Others still might be prompted to do so by FreedomWorks and Club for Growth's 11th hour denouncements of the Senate compromise plan. Heritage Action, which apparently helped to kill the House's vote on Tuesday, also urged against a vote on the Senate plan, because neither idea did enough to reform the health care law. Tonight's vote will be a "key" scored vote for Heritage. The Tea Party Patriots have sent a series of releases denouncing any sort of compromise to reporters in recent days: "The Ruling Elites in Washington, D.C. have completely abandoned the American people," reads one. It continues, "The deal cut in the Senate does NOT protect the American people from this unfair and unworkable law. The Senate deal is a complete sellout."
Despite the failure of the Tea Party's strategy, even with the full backing of Speaker John Boehner, for the two-week shutdown and debt ceiling scare, many members of the conservative wing of the GOP still think their game is winnable — if only enough people came around to their side. FreedomWorks's Matt Kibbe hinted at this in a frustrated statement to The Washington Post following the Senate compromise deal: "This was a very winnable fight, if the Republicans had been willing to fight." He added:
“The reaction we’re getting from our activists is resolve to keep fighting,” he added, particularly on the issue of the national debt. “Somebody needs to stop the bipartisan recklessness, and that’s what we’re here to do.”
There's a strange contradiction on the surface of the Tea Party that's now pretty obvious to shutdown watchers. On the one hand, the group claims to represent the majority of Americans, something not borne out by any national polling on political affiliation. On the other hand, the group frames itself as an upstart outsider with a message that's always, as they see it, about to catch fire and spread through the rest of the U.S. That too, as evidenced by the shutdown, is not so far borne out by reality.
That contradiction makes more sense if you view the Tea Party in religious terms. Bloomberg News' Francis Wilkinson tried to do this earlier in the week, asking whether the group might become the "upstart" religion of the Republican party. But that's not quite right. The Tea Party is already the religious wing of the GOP, sharing much of its organization structure and affiliations with the group formerly known as the Religious Right, a point that's been well-documented for years. This is a group that believes in the power of the Word, no matter how unpopular that word might be. Ted Cruz didn't win the Values Voter Straw Poll because he forced a shutdown, or is an effective senator. He won because, in the minds of the attendees, he speaks the truth. Boehner is now winning support from the Tea Party wing of the House, again, not because he won any important concessions for Republicans (he didn't). It's because he fought. In a way, the Tea Party practices "faith of a mustard seed" politics: if you speak the truth loudly enough, plant the seed of an idea in the heads of the American public, then other Americans — the good ones, anyway — will come around to your side in time. It's political evangelism. And fortunately for the Tea Party (but for virtually no one else) the group will have plenty of opportunities in the coming months to preach again.
Weirdly, the shutdown may have overshadowed the Tea Party's best opportunity to convince Americans that Obamacare is unworkable: the glitchy state-by-state roll-out of the exchange has gotten plenty of attention in the press, but that story has played second fiddle to the current shutdown and doomsday threat of Thursday's debt default deadline.