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Four Reasons the Tea Partiers Were Big Losers in the Debt Ceiling Deal

The professional political operatives behind the Tea Party movement were huge winners, but what about the rank-and-file Tea Partiers themselves?

The conventional wisdom holds that the Tea Partiers were among the “winners” of the debt ceiling fight. We know this because the Washington Post , that font of Beltway conventional wisdom, told us as much:

There were major questions coming into the 112th Congress about who would blink first — the largely establishment-aligned leaders of the new Republican House majority or the tea-party-aligned freshman members. We got our answer to that question late Thursday as House Speaker John Boehner was forced not only to postpone his compromise bill but ultimately to add conservative sweeteners to get the 217 votes he needed. (He got 218.) The tea party — inside and outside Congress — will almost certainly be emboldened by the result of this fight.

That narrative conflates Tea Party-endorsed politicians and the professional conservative operatives working behind the scenes to advance their agenda with the rank-and-file Tea Partiers themselves. And it's important to understand what different creatures they really are. 

In her book  Boiling Mad , veteran New York Times reporter Kate Zernike untangled some of the movement’s apparent contradictions. The Tea Party groups are touted by their fans as part of a “leaderless” movement, yet its various “leaders” are all over the media, weighing in on the issues of the day. Zernike squares that circle by describing the Tea Party brand as a franchise of sorts — a movement of small, local groups whose organizers are fiercely suspicious of “elites,” but which also enjoy training — and guidance on messaging — PR and infrastructure provided to them by high-profile conservative groups like FreedomWorks, which are led by Washington insiders and backed by boatloads of corporate money.

Zernicke visited the Freedomworks offices, where she found that “the real work of spreading the Tea Party brushfires was done by a small knot of about 20 take-no-prisoners young conservatives” working with “the Red Bull-and-beer spirit of a fraternity.” But the far-larger majority of ordinary Tea Party supporters — those who forward the emails, sign the petitions, and occasionally attend the rallies — are a completely different story.

Zernike wrote that while they were attracted to abstract rhetoric about “freedom” from Big Government, “it wasn’t clear that [the rank-and-file Tea Partiers] understood” that if they had their druthers, the young Ayn Rand fans organizing the movement “would eliminate benefits for the elderly, subsidies for students who could not afford college on their own, [or] laws that made sure banks couldn’t disappear with people’s savings overnight.”

The movement, according to Zernicke, “depend[s] on the blurring of ideological differences,” which she likened to “an older man ignoring that he had no music or cultural references in common with his young trophy wife.”

The hard-right politicians and GOP operatives behind the scenes undoubtedly scored a big victory in the debt limit showdown, forcing deep spending cuts for years to come without any new revenues. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he got 98 percent of what he wanted in the agreement, and he's right. But for the actual rank-and-file Tea Partiers themselves – those angry white people holding up misspelled signs claiming that Obama's either a socialist or a Nazi — it's a completely different story.

They lost big in this deal, even if they don't know exactly why or how. Here are four reasons why the conventional wisdom that says the Tea Partiers won is simply wrong.

1. When Leadership Turned the Screws, Their Courageous Champions Folded Like Cheap Suits.

A lot of progressives know that sinking feeling one gets after discovering that the politician you believed in and worked your ass off to get elected is, at the end of the day, just a politician. And the Tea Partiers no doubt have that feeling today, after many of their champions buckled and ended up voting for the debt limit deal when the pressure was on.

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