Perhaps liberals have a hard time understanding the tea party phenomenon because it's so at odds with the spirit of the times. Those funny 18th-century costumes they sport at rallies have a deeper meaning than simply a reference to the original Boston Tea Party. Unlike most 20th- and 21st-century political activists, tea party members are not asking for anything from the federal government -- not "full funding" for this or that program, not more research for this or that disease, and not more tax exemptions for this or that industry. They simply ask that the federal government not spend more than it collects in taxes and not continue its suicidal expansion.
Tea party activists are excellent patriots -- but during the debt-ceiling confrontation, some have displayed an obtuse and even vain rigidity.
Phillips, for example, argued that "Boehner is not listening to those who elected him and is now pushing a plan with almost nonexistent budget cuts" and urged a no vote. Sen. Rand Paul vowed that he would not vote to raise the debt ceiling until after a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution passed. Rep. Jason Chaffetz explained his unwillingness to back Boehner's bill this way: "I really truly worry that the debt is one of the single greatest threats to the United States of America, that we're talking about a problem that is multitrillion (dollars) in its depth, and I think we ought to be cutting more. I just don't think it goes far enough."
Of course the Boehner bill doesn't solve the debt problem. The debt is 98.6 percent of GDP. A debt of that magnitude will take years to tame. Unlike debt-ceiling increases in the past, this one at least sets the precedent of requiring dollar-for-dollar cuts.
The Democrats control the Senate. The presidency is occupied by a Democrat. Those two uncomfortable realities severely limit the good that can be accomplished at this moment.
But precisely because the stakes are so high -- Chaffetz is right about the threat -- the overriding concern must be to change those realities. And so the first responsibility of members of Congress as well as grassroots activists should be to do nothing that will impede the election of a Republican president and Republican majority Senate in 2012. If Republicans control the Congress and the presidency after 2012, they will have unlimited opportunities to cut the budget, decrease the debt, change the rules that permit government spending to increase on autopilot, and (one hopes) adopt the kind of pro-business policies that will encourage rather than impede economic growth.
Bill Buckley famously (Did he say anything that wasn't famous?) declared that he would always support the most right-leaning candidate who could win. Similarly, we should support those policies and tactics (not a dirty word) that are most likely to lead to good outcomes for the country.
House Speaker John Boehner, dealing with a remarkably ideological president, could not get a compromise. Despite dueling primetime speeches, it remains unclear how voters will interpret the impasse. But the president has to be worried that he seems quite prepared to bring down economic ruin on the country if he is denied a tax increase on "millionaires and billionaires" (by which he means those earning more than $200,000, by the way). He owns the lousy economy, the budget deadlock and the debt. Unless...
Unless Republicans play into his hands by seeming equally indifferent to the results of a failure to raise the debt ceiling. And for what grand purpose? Because it doesn't solve our problems all at once? That would be a Republican default in many senses of the word. It would permit Obama to share blame about the state of the economy with them. He and a compliant press will use every opportunity to attribute anything that goes wrong in American life from now until November 2012 to Republican intransigence on the debt ceiling.
One of the ways Democrats operated over the years was to pocket what they could get and circle back for more later. They didn't get Hillarycare, but they got expansions of Medicaid and then S-CHIP and finally Obamacare. It was a successful tactic. Republicans should learn from it.