Saturday's Tea Party Patriots gathering at the fair grounds in Sacramento was a boisterous and, as always, well-behaved and friendly event. The large crowd sat under very sunny skies and heard from Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler, Congressman Tom McClintock, the Media Research Center's L. Brent Bozell and me among many others. My on-stage colleagues were passionate and interesting, but by far the most important message came from the crowd not from the front of the gathering.
The vast majority of the grassroots at the rally think the House GOP got rolled on the recently completed budget deal. They are profoundly unhappy with the Beltway GOP and talk of primary opponents and support for Democrats in select races against big-spending Republican appropriators was everywhere.
On my radio show Tuesday, I asked one of the senior GOP appropriators, Oklahoma's Tom Cole, if he had heard this criticism and whether he expected a primary fight.
"You know, look, it’s a free country," he told me. "Anybody’s allowed to run."
"I’ve won general elections, won primaries before, so I don’t worry too much about that," Cole continued. "I just simply try and do what I think the right thing is and let the chips fall where they may. So far, I’ve been reasonably successful in my district, but you know, yeah, this is America. Everybody’s allowed to run for office."
Cole also defended the budget deal at length, and the complete transcript of our conversation is here. What is most striking is not Cole's vigorous defense, but the disconnect between what I heard on Saturday in Sacramento and what I heard from Cole on Tuesday. The gulf between the grassroots volunteers of the Tea Parties and the Beltway GOP is vast, deep and growing.
Much of the hole was dug when expectations of deep cuts were fueled by the Pledge for America and the rhetoric of campaign 2010. Nothing was heard then about the GOP controlling only "one half of one third of the federal government," as politically self-destructive a phrase as has been invented to excuse getting rolled but one which somehow has made itself into the talking points of every hapless member sent out to face the conservative base. "One-half of one-third of the federal government" equals a veto over everything that comes from Congress, and the base knows it. It has concluded that the House GOP would rather spend than fight, and the IOUs on future tough action have already accumulated in a high stack to which most activists are unwilling to add.
Now it is another Congressional vacation season, with junkets everywhere (not for the Speaker, who is in Afghanistan, as opposed to Harry Reid who is touring China at the front of a massive phalanx of fellow senators, family and staff even as the PRC brutally represses a Christian congregation in the capital.) Most Americans don't get a week off from jobs that pay so much and they certainly don't get taxpayer-funded jaunts around the tourist sites of the PRC.
The chance to turn around the falling approval ratings of the House GOP arrives with the new debate about the debt ceiling, and the intense focus on this means that paper promises won't satisfy anyone --not promises of Balanced Budget amendments or spending triggers. Some deep cuts are in order, like block grants of Medicaid, and/or some job-growing moves like drilling in ANWR or an exemption from the Endangered Species Act's absurd requirements that have cut deeply into water deliveries to the agricultural job engine of California's Central Valley.
Not just the Tea Party activists but voters generally want real results from the new GOP majority, not more excuses and promises.
When the GOP leadership reassembles in D.C., it should summon the caucus and decide if they are going to fight or roll over again and again. If it is the latter, better to say so than promise reform that cannot be delivered. "All hat and no cattle" is the worst sort of reputation to earn, and the House GOP is on the road to being branded in just that fashion.