Robertses: Tea Party heartburn
Barely three months after John Boehner became Speaker of the House, Judson Phillips has already lost patience with him. The founder of Tea Party Nation wrote recently that the speaker ědid not get the messageî from the last election. ěThe honeymoon is over,î he announced, and Tea Partiers should find a candidate to challenge Boehner in the Republican primary next year.
The speakerís unforgivable sin? He promised to cut $100 billion from this yearís budget, but because Democrats control the Senate and the White House, he will fall far short of that goal. The speaker looks ělike a fool,î says Phillips. But whoís the real fool here?
In fairness, not every Tea Party activist agrees with Phillips about ousting Boehner, but his tirade reveals the basic ó and possibly fatal ó flaw in the partyís approach to politics. Tea Partiers simply do not understand how democracy works. And they compound their ignorance with arrogance.
Contrary to their claims, the Tea Party did not ěwinî the 2010 election. Yes, party activists helped elect 87 Republican House freshmen, and most of them share the Tea Partyís fierce hostility toward government. That accomplishment entitles them to an important seat at the decision-making table.
But those freshmen account for only one of five House members. Voters sent another 348 congressmen to Washington as well, and all of them have their own constituencies and interests, priorities and principles. This is a large and diverse country, and no one group or philosophy can dictate how the government operates.
We know, we know. Tea Party types will read those words and say, see, they are written by ěWashington insidersî who donít understand ěthe people.î But weíve been watching and analyzing politics for close to half a century and experience has taught us a profound truth.
Compromise is not a dirty word. And Boehner is not an infidel for talking to Democrats. Compromise is absolutely essential for democracy to work efficiently. Without it, politics becomes holy war. Republicans and Democrats start acting like Shiites and Sunnis. Washington resembles Baghdad or Kabul.
At its core, this is a pragmatic country that rejects extremes on both sides. In the 2008 election, only one of three voters called themselves conservatives and only one-fifth identified as liberals. The rest, 44 percent, chose the label ěmoderate,î and the latest poll by the Pew Research Center reinforces the countryís middle-of-the-road character. While 68 percent of all Tea Party sympathizers said that lawmakers should ěstick to their principlesî and shut down the government if they donít get their way in budget negotiations, only 36 percent of all voters shared that view.
History shows clearly: Any faction that tries to defy this moderate impulse is ultimately doomed to failure. Thatís exactly what happened to the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, two movements that entered politics convinced they had a monopoly on truth and wound up isolating themselves in an ideological dead end.
The same problem exists on the left. Some liberals want to emulate Judson Phillips and fire President Obama for failing to keep key campaign promises, such as closing the prison at Guan-tanamo or enacting a ěpublic optionî in his healthcare bill. But like Boehner, Obama could not keep some of his promises because reality prevented him from doing so.
He could not close Gitmo because he had nowhere to put its inmates. He could not pass a public option because he didnít have the votes. But that has not stopped some of his left-wing critics from denouncing him as a traitor.
In the 2012 election, the Tea Party could be the best thing that ever happened to Barack Obama. In early primary states like Iowa and South Carolina, party activists could force Republican candidates to make outlandish promises that play well at Tea Party rallies but cripple the GOPís nominee in the fall election. Tea Party favorites like Rep. Michele Bachmann could interject their extreme views into early debates and candidate forums, making sure that no one on the platform escapes with a shred of moderation intact.
If Bachmann wants to run in those early primaries, the Democrats should pay her filing fee. And if Judson Phillips wants to come back to Washington and denounce John Boehner as a sellout, the Democrats should pay his bus fare. Better yet, a one-way first-class air ticket so he cannot leave town. They know who the fool is.
Steve and Cokie Roberts write columns for the Newspaper Enterprise Association.