Peter Huck: Tea Party tactics set agenda for election

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They have been called the American Taleban, Jacobins, terrorists, nativists, even - by one of their own, Rand Paul - hobbits, engaged in a Manichaean struggle between good and evil.

But despite the bile heaped upon them by liberals, as the dust settles on the nail-biting United States debt default crisis, averted at cliff's edge this week, the angry-as-hell Tea Party are riding high, Beltway victors.

Since emerging in 2009 as a grassroots revolt by mainly white, middle-class suburban folk, the fundamentalist Tea Party, which has made eliminating the US$14.3 national ($16.5 trillion) debt its major goal, has lit a conflagration under business-as-usual Washington politicians on both sides of the aisle.

"These people, who feel alienated from what they believe to be the elite culture, have decided that, by God, we're going to show them that we count," says Steve Bell, senior economic policy director with the Bipartisan Policy Centre.

They have done this by driving debt on to centre stage - along with that cherished Republican goal, shrinking government - in a polarising display of brinkmanship.

Bell, a Republican whose younger brother is a Tea Party member in South Carolina, says the group's righteous anger is driven by fear.

"It's ironic. While Washington is concerned about losing America's Triple 'A' credit rating, most Americans I deal with in the middle of the country are worried about losing their jobs or homes. I think that shows the disconnect between Washington and an economy in which most people are not better off than they were 10 years ago. And that fear should not be underestimated."

No one inside the Beltway is underestimating it now. As unemployment and home foreclosures soared, the Tea Party tapped into that fear, plus anger with corporate bailouts and stimulus packages, then ran with it, vowing to defeat President Obama, the focus of right-wing dissent, in 2012.

After November's midterm elections, which propelled the Tea Party into Congress, they became kingmakers, sowing alarm among Republicans.

Before the debt vote, hardliners pledged to annihilate backsliders at the next round of primary elections, a threat that evoked Soviet party commissars shooting soldiers who baulked during battle, and helped explain how a Republican caucus minority - "on fire with ideological fanaticism, political ruthlessness and economic heedlessness" according to the New Yorker - could wield such power, the Tea Party wagging the Republican dog.

"They can exist as long as activists control the Republican party nominating process," says Larry Sabato, professor of politics at the University of Virginia. "Under our system many districts are controlled by one party. All you need to do is elect your candidate in the nominating primary and you've got the seat."

The threat to Grand Old Party incumbents was underlined on Facebook by Tea Party sweetheart Sarah Palin: "Everybody I talk to still believes in contested primaries." Michelle Bachmann, House of Representatives Tea Party caucus leader and GOP presidential contender, was also not for turning.

"I won't raise taxes. I will reduce spending. I won't vote to raise the debt ceiling. And I have the titanium spine to see it through," she promised the National Press Club.

She will need that titanium. While the Tea Party proved its power in the debt battle, it may be a pyrrhic victory. The big question for Tea Party supporters is whether the debt struggle has been their apogee.

Their scorched-earth obduracy towards Washington elites may thrill followers, but it has arguably hurt America's business reputation abroad and alienated moderate voters. When 22 Tea Party activists rejected House Speaker John Boehner's "Grand Bargain" with Obama - which quashed tax increases (no doubt pleasing Charles Koch, Tea Party backer and co-head of Koch Industries, the largest US private company) - insisting he include a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, they made him captive to their demands and weakened the Speaker's authority in his party. Ironically, the final deal proved worse for the Tea Party than Boehner's plan, with US$2.4 trillion cut, as against a proposed US$4 trillion.

Some Tea Party followers feel the deal has not gone far enough and demand more cuts. "They want a very large portion of it brought down immediately," says Sabato.

"It's just not possible. They refuse to acknowledge that."

Despite inflamed rhetoric opposing a debt increase, many grassroots supporters did. A CBS poll in July found 66 per cent of Tea Party supporters favoured compromise. And 53 per cent agreed any deal should include cuts and tax hikes. Most said the economy and jobs, not the debt, were their main concern. Others were worried cuts might harm the US military.

Essentially, the Tea Party is a protest movement, not a political party. Antecedents include the Abolitionists before the Civil War, the far left in the 1960s and 1970s, and Ross Perot, who championed debt control, achieved by Bill Clinton but torpedoed by President George W. Bush's tax cuts for the rich that helped swell a US$137 billion surplus in 2001 into an US$1.2 trillion deficit by 2009.

Meanwhile, the Tea Party - which Bell calculates has 15 to 20 lawmakers in the Senate and 60 to 70 in the House - is a divisive loose cannon amid the party elites they rail against, at odds with the daily challenge of finding common ground across the aisle to advance the national interest.

"The Tea Party refuses to accept the nature of American government, which is compromise," says Sabato. "They just refuse to accept it. They want all or nothing."

Which makes them awkward GOP caucus mates. This week all was calm. A Washington Post-Pew Research Centre poll said 54 per cent of Tea Partiers gave a thumbs up to Boehner. Some 40 per cent of GOP midterm voters identified with the insurgency.

But power is best exercised responsibly and it is here many find the Tea Party seriously lacking.

Unlike the Tea Party or the far left the President hugged the political middle, seeking to morph from a wild-eyed liberal into a moderate in the minds of swing voters. Any chance of the President getting a second term will hinge on whether he can whittle down the daunting 9.2 per cent unemployment rate and amp up the tepid 1.3 per cent GNP growth rate, a tough call, given the debt deal slashed spending and stymied any tax increases, provoking howls of outrage from the left.

The Tea Party drove Obama into a corner, but can they keep him there? Can the outsiders morph into deal-savvy politicians, prepared to negotiate with people whose ideas they despise? Like almost everything else, as the 2012 presidential season kicks up a gear, it depends how they address the economy, widely seen as Obama's Achilles heel.

Harnessing angry energy to seize power is one thing. Keeping it, another. It is unlikely the Tea Party will form the genesis for a third, stand-alone political party, a chimera in US politics. Instead, their core ideas, like reducing the national debt, will be absorbed by the GOP.

"The Tea Party's raison d'etre is the national debt," says Sabato. "Once we get that under control, they're going to have great difficulty agreeing on anything else. Some of them are libertarian on social issues. Some of them are social conservatives on abortion, gay rights, that kind of thing.

"Some of them are free trade. Some are anti-free trade. They only agree about the debt and fiscal policy."

In a sense the debt drama was a diversion. The real economic problems for America remain growing the economy, creating employment and readjusting to a new global order, where the US is challenged by China, India and Brazil.

"I think 2010 was a very unusual election," says Bell. "In my opinion the substantial turnout then will be different than the turnout we have in 2012. We saw independent voters break heavily towards Republican candidates. And we saw a younger electorate that was conspicuous by its absence. I don't think we'll see all of those elements again."

At the same time the focus is shifting back to the presidential election, where Bachmann, the Tea Party standard bearer, does not inspire the mainstream GOP.

"I cannot conceive of the circumstances under which she could run," says Bell. "And I've been involved in several federal campaigns. My family's very conservative. And has a military background. And all you have to say to my family is this: 'Commander-in-Chief Michelle Bachmann'. And they say, 'No thank you'.

Sabato is equally blunt. "If the Republicans pick Bachmann as their nominee the election is over. There is zero chance she will ever be President of the US. But a GOP governor could get elected. If the overall economy and job situation are as flat next year as they are now, Obama's toast."

Obama's best hope is economic progress which could take the wind from the Tea Party's sails. There may also be public revulsion at perceptions the Tea Party put its own goals before the nation's, causing the political pendulum to swing away from the far right. It's happened before. Anger with the far left in the 1960s and 1970s propelled Ronald Reagan to the White House. Obama can cross his fingers.

Debt divisions

63%
of Americans thought Republicans acted irresponsibly in the debt debate.

51%
say the GOP will be blamed if the crisis further harms the US economy, perhaps by losing the AAA rating.

30%
fingered President Barack Obama for the debt debacle.

Source: CNN

- NZ Herald

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