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That may be a little paranoid. But even paranoiacs occasionally have some facts on their side. For example, even when it looked like a deal might not happen, the stock market didn't panic as Administration aides warned it might. In fact the market dropped a few hundred points in the days after it became clear that a deal would emerge proving to the hard-core Tea drinkers just how inadequate the deal was. And there certainly is truth to the idea that Wall Street's money buys outsize influence in Washington. Tea Party bloggers scoffed in disgust this spring when Obama's former budget director, Peter Orszag, moved almost directly into a job with the banking giant Citigroup. That affirmed the view of the Tea Party that the only minority hijacking America is a small sliver of the political elite and their corporate-titan allies.
A New Political Order?
The movement has its ugly side, but there is no gainsaying its clout. As of April, 45% of those who identified with the Tea Party believed Obama was born in a foreign country. That was before he released his birth certificate, but that move only underscored the movement's growing power. Meanwhile, the Tea Party's success has already pushed Democrats' backs to the wall, first in last fall's elections and then in congressional skirmishing. To listen to Democrats now is to appreciate how bewildered they are by a rival force that some, like Reid, may have been too quick to dismiss. "It just seems that when there are facts that everyone else agrees on, they just say no," Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer says.
But the Tea Party poses a huge threat to Republicans as well. Already, the GOP's business base, while applauding the rebels' fierce opposition to new taxes, parts company with the movement's willingness to play games with the debt limit and defund the government. Much of that despised federal spending, after all, fuels good old-fashioned U.S. businesses in the form of procurement and service contracts. (The U.S. Chamber of Commerce supported the 2009 Obama stimulus.) These two wings of the party aligned through the debt fight, but when the time comes next fall to take a hard look at tax loopholes and other spending, that unity may not last.
Some fault lines are already breaking through the surface. When Tea Party Republicans held out in the final days for their prized balanced-budget amendment, the Wall Street Journal editorial page mocked them as hobbits battling Mordor. "This is the kind of crack political thinking that turned Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell into GOP Senate nominees," the Journal wrote. The analysis rang true with some senior Republicans, including the party's 2008 nominee, John McCain, who gleefully quoted the editorial on the Senate floor.
But few in McCain's party are ready to express their fears openly about what course to take in the Tea Party era. Nearly all the GOP's major 2012 presidential candidates came out against the final budget deal on the grounds that it was, well, weak tea. (The exception: Jon Huntsman, who has positioned himself as a Tea-free moderate.) That may be good politics in a Republican primary where Tea Party activists in states like Iowa and South Carolina have huge influence. Party elders worry it could make the eventual nominee look like the pawn of radicals and far less appealing to the moderate center.
And that could be the saving grace in the Tea Party's rise for a beleaguered Barack Obama. The President, too, seemed unprepared for the movement's sway over a debt debate that drove him far from his original negotiating position. For Obama, the policy implications of the Tea Party's power are brutal. But if the President can appear to be holding the middle ground against a far-right fringe, he may have a formula for re-election despite a bad economy.
Not that the Tea Party agrees. Michele Bachmann has already declared Obama "a one-term President." To some that's speculation. To her, it's a simple fact.