The Tea Party’s freshman class gets schooled

Justin Paulette Fellow, Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs
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A professor at Yale recently confessed to being “shocked” and “embarrassed” by the results of a study which found that Tea Party members know more about science than the average American. Those informed exclusively by left-wing echo-chambers – as the Ivy League academic fully admitted – likely share the professor’s embarrassing misconceptions. This institutional bias surely disadvantages Tea Party efforts to win over hearts and minds, though their principal message of fiscal responsibility accords with the views of most Americans.

So why do half of Americans now hold an unfavorable view of the Tea Party?

The reason for this public disavowal is not that they disapprove of the Tea Party’s message (which the nation more or less shares), but rather exasperation at its amateurish tactics and political naiveté.

The Tea Party’s fall from grace is a self-inflicted wound. The latest attempt by newly-elected Tea Party Republicans” to introduce fiscal responsibility in the House resulted in an epic and categorical failure. They wanted to defund or delay the implementation of Obamacare and balance the budget through spending cuts. They instead partially obfuscated the disastrous rollout of Obamacare exchanges and may have increased government debt as a result of the shutdown and default debacle. In exchange for soon-to-be forgotten promises of income verification enforcement and budget reform negotiations, the Tea Party lost America’s trust.

Tea Party Republicans failed to achieve their goals because they are ideologically righteous and politically inept. They have fine and noble goals but believe that the logical necessity of their arguments translates into inevitable success. The mechanism of Washington politics yet escapes them.

Legislative politics begin with head-counting. How many votes do you have? Political poker then ensues as both sides shuffle their priorities, court the fence-straddlers and test the boundaries of party loyalty and public sentiment. The Tea Party bluffed on behalf of the entire Republican Party on an issue for which they never had the votes, and seasoned Democrats called them on it.

Politicians must identify realistic possibilities. Defunding Obamacare, for example, was not initially a strategically impracticable idea. Repeal – the preferred Tea Party objective – was never a viable option while Democrats controlled the Senate and White House. Defunding should have remained part of a larger fiscal agenda boasting more immediately attainable goals.

Politicians must also deliver a message. Six months ago, the Tea Party should have been laying the foundation for the budget and debt ceiling showdowns by repeatedly explaining the facts and game plan to the people. If defunding Obamacare was Plan A in budget negotiations, there should have been alternatives running into double letters. They should have coupled their promise to maintain the debt ceiling’s current status with a clear explanation that balanced budget maneuvers would not threaten a default on sovereign debt (unless the president opted for default over spending cuts).

And politicians must be adaptable to changing political winds. The fear of Obamacare was that an unsustainable entitlement program would become part of the permanent political landscape once millions of Americans began receiving government subsidies. But the program’s rollout was widely (and accurately) predicted to be a catastrophe and implementation is predicted to disprove nearly all of the president’s promises. Why, then, delay implementation and allow Democrats time to postpone disaster? Fixing a broken bureaucracy is a far better 2014 campaign message than repealing a law which hasn’t even taken effect.

The American public should have been given months to coolly judge practical Republican solution to the obvious problems posed by Obamacare, deficits and the debt. If public opinion and expectations were solidly behind Republicans, the political winds might have favored extreme measures. Alternatively, public doubt and apprehension would have forewarned against attempted overreach and counseled moderation. Knowing where they stood, Republicans could have effectively bartered (and bluffed) for meaningful results.

Instead, the public was bewildered by seemingly erratic, Tea Party-induced government convulsions and was understandably spooked and angry at being dragged into a perilous predicament for which they had not been prepared. These were novice mistakes by rookie members of a venerable institution.

Political movements often gain national prominence only to collapse without consequence due to political ineptitude. The “know-nothing” party of the mid-19th century – which didn’t deserve national sympathy – is an oft-cited example of a movement which rose and fell with no lasting legacy. If Tea Partiers hope to avoid such a fate, they must learn their lessons and graduate to a higher class of political science. These patriots are on the verge of capturing or losing the heart of the Republican Party – it all depends on whether they can convince the people that they possess the practical wisdom and responsibility to be entrusted with the reins of government.