Some pundits have overused the cliche, “perfect storm,” in reference to the tea party, the tiny but vociferous and poisonous element in the national Republican Party. Its members in Congress have now in effect brought down a speaker, the very conservative (but for the tea party, not conservative enough) John Boehner of Ohio, who threw in the towel mostly out of frustration in trying to manage this most extreme element of his caucus.
But about the perfect storm. Basically, the pundits who’ve tried to analyze the power of the tea party conclude that the extreme redistricting Republicans in most states performed after the 2010 census (including North Carolina) made Republicans in most districts bullet-proof. No matter how radical their positions seemed, they were not going to get beaten, even in places where Democrats got more total votes statewide. And, the tea party takes no prisoners: If a conservative such as Boehner in an individual district failed to bow to the tea party just a little, they’d find an even more extreme conservative to run against him or her and big money folks like the Koch brothers would happily open the wallet.
Still, the ability of the tea party to make the Republican caucus bow and kiss its feet remains a mystery. When 4th District U.S. Rep. David Price came by recently to meet with me and editorial page editor Ned Barnett, I asked him how many actual tea partyers there were in the GOP caucus, the tea party subset of which is the Freedom Caucus. Price put the number at 38 or 40.
There are 247 Republicans in the House. Does the phrase “wag the dog” come to mind? But here, and there are a multitude of explanations from a variety of evil media sources, is the problem: Republicans don’t want to deal with Democrats on anything. Better to kiss up to the most ridiculous tea party ideas (say, confronting Hillary Clinton over Benghazi for the second or third time only to have the former secretary of state cut them to ribbons for the second or third time) than to make a reasonable deal with the Democrats.
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Boehner, in his last act, did the country a favor by dealing with Democrats, rejecting the tea party, and making a deal to raise the nation’s debt ceiling (a routine act under most previous presidents) and avoid a government shutdown. Boehner understood the curious and dangerous logic of the tea party on these matters, which seems to be that it would be better to have a default on America’s debt and a government shutdown even if it plunged the country into depression – as long as it hurt President Obama.
During another budget confrontation in 2013, Boehner became so agitated by right-wing extremists that he exclaimed, “Are you kidding me?” over their criticisms of the budget he helped to shape.
Unless new Speaker Paul Ryan demonstrates the gumption to ignore the tea partyers, he’ll get nothing done on his own conservative agenda and may well watch his party go down in the next election as the mainstream American electorate grows weary of the politics of hate that is the plasma of the tea party.
We’ve all been part of groups, at work or at play, where a small minority of sourpuss loudmouths ruined the atmosphere for everyone. On a baseball team once, I asked another player why he thought the “captain” was such a jerk and seemed to get away with it. “Well,” he said, “it’s because nobody ever took him out behind the barn and gave him what for. See, that shows a guy that there’s a line you don’t cross, and most of us have to learn that lesson.”
Not two days later, the captain was shown the line by that very player. He was a most agreeable fellow thereafter.
Speaker Ryan looks like a man who can take care of himself. Perhaps he needs to call a caucus in his barn-filled home state of Wisconsin. Just saying ...
Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at firstname.lastname@example.org