American politics may have changed forever this summer when the conservative members of Congress who are aligned with the Tea Party rejected dire warnings that failure to raise the debt limit would rock global markets and cut off Social Security payments to senior citizens. No, it wouldn't, the Tea Party replied, everything would be just fine. "We cannot go on scaring the American people," Michele Bachmann complained in July. She urged Barack Obama to "tell the truth" about the consequences of default. When House Speaker John Boehner agreed with Obama about the possible risks, he was called a dupe. "I would encourage the Speaker not to believe the President anymore," groused Texas Republican Congressman Louie Gohmert, a member of the House Tea Party caucus. "Quit believing the President when he uses these scare tactics." Never mind that the Federal Reserve chairman was also sounding the alarm.
"Everyone is entitled to their own opinion," the Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan liked to say, "but not to their own facts." Yet now that the debt crisis has passed, it is clear that Moynihan's adage is no longer true. The Tea Party movement has proved not only that people can have their own facts but also that they can use them to vast tactical advantage, crashing through the taboos of political convention and changing the game along the way. It has also proved that in a democracy, a minority can rule quite effectively, thank you.
In January, Senate majority leader Harry Reid predicted that the Tea Party would soon "disappear." Now, having pushed Reid's party into a deal few people would have thought possible a few months ago trillions in spending cuts, possibly with no new taxes the Tea Party is more convinced than ever that its facts and its tactics are the right ones. And its influence is hardly waning something Reid is the first to admit. The Tea Party's sway in Congress, Reid lamented as the Senate approved the debt deal on Aug. 2, "has been very, very disconcerting ... it stopped us from arriving at a conclusion much earlier."
Barack Obama has long promised a post-partisan environment in the capital. But he never imagined that a minority of Americans would come to play such an outsize role in the public conversation. Polls may show that Americans overwhelmingly want more compromise in Washington, but the Tea Party's leaders and the roughly 25% of Americans who consider themselves Tea Party supporters are primed for more confrontation. The debt fight, believe it or not, is probably just the beginning.
The Tao of Tea
It is a stark measure of how dramatically the American political landscape has shifted that the people who pushed hardest for spending cuts typically voted against the final deal. Why? It failed the purity test, a key necessity in the Tea Party book of virtues. South Carolina Republican Senator Jim DeMint said that the deal "puts America at risk and does nothing to solve our spending crisis," warning that the U.S. is "just tapping the brakes" as it hurtles toward a fiscal cliff. Tea Partyers in Congress wanted much bigger and faster cuts, especially to entitlement programs, enforced by a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution even though passage of such a measure by a Democratic Senate was about as likely as Obama sporting a Bachmann for President pin. (One Tea Party caucus member actually sponsored a bill to lower the debt limit.)