Remember that time the Tea Party Republicans in Congress almost forced the United States to default on its debt obligations by refusing to raise the debt ceiling? Remember how the government’s inability to, well, govern drove Standard & Poor’s to downgrade our credit rating for the first time ever?
The grownups — President Barack Obama, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — ended the Tea Party tantrum by promising the Tea Party that they’d get a chance to blow up the world later. By kicking the can down the field for 12 months, the Tea Party caucus gained incredible leverage. If it didn’t get what it wanted, automatic cuts to defense and entitlements would go into effect, and the Bush tax cuts would expire automatically. The Congressional Budget Office says doing this will push our economy off a “fiscal cliff” and cause another recession.
On Thursday, Congress came back to make a decision: Either they could vote to postpone the decision until after the elections when we all don’t hate each other quite so much, or the Tea Party could once again play Russian Roulette by holding a gun to our heads. After the fit they threw a year ago, you’d think the Tea Partiers would have seized this opportunity to get everything they wanted.
Instead, everyone agreed to chill. The House voted 329-91 to postpone talks until March. The day was marked by bi-partisan cooperation and big smiles on both sides of the aisle. Since when did the Tea Party turn into a tea party? Next thing you know, the Baltimore Orioles will be in a pennant race.
I have an easier time believing in Buck Showalter and the Baltimore bullpen than Tea Partiers who have suddenly embraced bi-partisanship. Since when do these guys put differences aside for the greater good? It made no sense to me, but then again, we’re talking about Congress.
Newspaper accounts had no answers, just vague mutterings about Republicans putting the fight off until after the new Congress is sworn in, skipping the lame duck session after the elections. I even thought about checking the Fox News website, but my web browser doesn’t have a misinformation filter. So why didn’t the Tea Party pick this fight now?
The good thing about having helped elect a couple dozen Members of Congress is that some of them will take my calls when I have a dumb question. This time, Henry Cuellar from Laredo picked up. I figured that Cuellar, the highest-ranking Blue Dog and Hispanic in Congress, would be able to tell me what was really going on.
“They’re betting a lot that they’re taking over everything,” said Cuellar. “That’s the Tea Party people.”
The thought that the Tea Party folks have figured out how to think strategically is both chilling and, given the improved polling outlook for Democrats since the conventions, amusing. Obama is polling ahead in most swing states, making a Mitt Romney win increasingly unlikely. And if Paul Ryan isn’t there to break ties in the Senate as Vice President, Republicans will have to win most of the toss-up seats to take over the Senate, something Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell only gives 50-50 odds. Giving up today’s leverage for tomorrow’s long shot seems like a bad bet, but Cuellar says the Tea Party is all in.
“They think they still have a shot,” said Cuellar. “They think they’re going to win the Senate. They think they’re going to win the White House. They truly believe that.”
Cuellar, who’s well known for his willingness to reach across the aisle, says the Tea Party caucus is holding up normally bipartisan legislation such as the Farm Bill and the Transportation Bill in hopes that they have more power after the next election. As long as the Tea Party is committed to this strategy of legislating at the ballot box, bipartisanship is impossible.
Remember when we thought it was bad when the Tea Party Congress was willing to shut down the government unless they got their way? That seems quaint. Now they want the whole government.
JASON STANFORD is a Democratic consultant who has helped elect or re-elect more than two dozen members of Congress. He lives in Austin, Texas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @jasstanford.