WASHINGTON — The partisan standoff over raising the federal debt ceiling still has potential to do more than destroy the nation’s credit rating and economic health. It could make or break the long-term prospects for the political movement that birthed the fight: the tea party.
No moment has more dramatically illustrated the tea party’s influence in Washington than the looming deadline to raise the debt ceiling and avoid sending the country into default. Demanding deep cuts in federal spending, no new taxes and a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, tea-party-backed lawmakers forced Republicans and Democrats alike to consider proposals that were unthinkable just a few months ago.
But as a deal was being crafted in Washington on Sunday, it was unclear whether the public, or even members of the far-flung tea party bloc itself, would hold the fledgling movement responsible for the crisis that sent the country to the brink of default. The tea party could see victory quickly turn to defeat if more Americans blame it for pushing its agenda too far.
Even some tea party activists agree. They say politicians who reject compromise in the name of tea party principles misread the views of the movement itself. They worry that the tea party’s influence – and electoral fortunes – will suffer. And those activists worry that such an outcome could end the momentum in Washington to improve the nation’s fiscal health over the long term.
“We didn’t get into this mess overnight, and we can’t get out of it overnight,” said Henry Kelley, chairman of the Fort Walton Beach Tea Party in Florida.
Of course, not all of Kelley’s tea party compatriots feel the same way. Some urged their congressmen to stand their ground against raising the debt ceiling without more radical cuts to the deficit, which explains why House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has had such a difficult time rallying his troops in the House and why a deal was being crafted at the last moment.
The debt fight highlights the challenge of the tea party’s transition from political protest movement to long-term governing power. On the one hand, recognizing what’s attainable and being willing to compromise are longtime Washington tactics that are necessary to getting results. On the other hand, cutting deals or waffling on staunch conservative positions were the very demons that tea partyers across the nation promised to exorcise from Washington when they helped sweep a new Republican majority into office last year.
Now, some of those same tea partyers recognize that it’s not so simple.
“I just feel that both parties need to somehow figure out a compromise, a temporary one, to get us through the 2012 election,” said Colen Lindell, 22, an activist with the Aiken County Tea Party in South Carolina who is increasingly worried about the consequences of a default on the economy. “The government needs to cut spending. You just can’t keep running deficits. But I would prefer a deal struck right now.”
So would most Americans, which underscores the peril to the tea party of being perceived as an obstacle to a deal. Yet according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted in mid-July, 77 percent of respondents thought Republicans were doing too little to compromise in the debt-ceiling debate. Making the leap to blame the tea party directly isn’t hard: Of the 22 Republicans who voted against Boehner’s debt proposal late Friday, 13 have a tea party affiliation, such as an endorsement by a tea party group.
Much of the challenge for the tea party as its followers hope to remain a long-term force lies with the group’s decentralized nature. It is a point of pride for thousands of activists drawn to rallies and marches and local tea party meetings starting in the early months of 2009 that no one speaks for them, no national leaders control them and no single set of principles can be assigned t o them.
Several local tea party activists, for instance, took very different views from that of Lindell and Kelly. Karl Peters, 52, with the Florence, S.C., group Educated Voter, said he would like to see primary challenges against the Republicans who supported Boehner’s plan to avoid default, because it didn’t go far enough.
“If we give in now and compromise on something that’s useless and doesn’t accomplish any of our goals, what’s the point of that?” Peters said.