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

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.

It's not that the ordinary Joes and Janes of the movement cared passionately about the debt limit fight — Gallup tells us that most Tea Partiers weren't moved by the debate. But they sent these freshmen to Washington to remain loyal to the movement — to stand up to politics-as-usual and stand firm on spending.

And the Tea Party organizations had made the vote a line in the sand that could not be crossed. Tea Party leaders said there were no circumstances that would excuse raising the limit. They said warnings about the catastrophe a default would cause were a bunch of “lies” and promised to “hold accountable” any Republican who voted for the deal. There was talk of primaries. Erick Erickson — whom I noted was the “toxic idiot” advising the Tea Party caucus — told GOP lawmakers: “Don't you dare give up fighting against the debt ceiling increase until you get” the Right's crazy “Cut, Cap and Balance” act passed.

For their part, many within Congress's Tea Party caucus talked the talk – tough talk about holding the line. Macho-man Allen West, R-Fla. — whose alleged war crimes in Iraq launched him to prominence within Tea Party ranks — said all this talk of needing to raise the debt ceiling was “sad, pathetic fear-mongering.” The government doesn't need to raise the ceiling, he argued, asking, “If you want to rehabilitate a crack addict, why give them more crack?”

Then the Republican establishment ratcheted up the pressure, and West joined a majority of his fellow lawmakers in the House Tea Party caucus in voting for the deal — 33 of 60 to be exact. They included rising Tea Party stars Joe Walsh, R-Ill., Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and Mike Pence, R-Ind. Without these Tea Partiers' votes, the deal would have fallen in the House. All told, about two-thirds of Republican freshmen went along with the party's leadership when the chips were down.

In the Senate, there were votes to spare as the deal passed easily, but Rand Paul, R-Ky., voted for it a day after saying he wouldn't, as did South Carolina's Jim DeMint — arguably the Tea Party's spiritual leader in the upper chamber — along with Tea Party heroes Marco Rubio of Florida, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Mike Lee of Utah.

2. Tea Partiers Will Be Hurt by Both Spending Cuts and the Austerity Recession.

When Tea Party politicians win, Tea Partiers lose. That's because while they tend to skew a bit wealthier than the country as a whole, they are, by and large, representative of the middle class. The New York Times found that they are “no more or less afraid of falling into a lower socioeconomic class” than the rest of us. A Gallup poll conducted last March found that 6 percent were unemployed, and another 6 percent were working part time.

As I wrote recently, deep cuts in spending are on their way, and they'll align with the last of the stimulus funds drying up and the expiration of extended unemployment benefits to depress demand at a time when a lack of demand is our core economic problem. The economy is going to get worse — an “austerity recession” is upon us — and the Tea Partiers will feel the pain just like everyone else.

And while most believe that the government wastes all its money on the "undeserving poor," and not people like them, they're wrong! Suzanne Mettler, a professor of government at Cornell University, found that there's a massive disconnect between who Americans believe various government programs serve and the reality. She looked at those who responded to a survey claiming that they “have not used a government social program” and found that a majority of them had.

Almost two-thirds of Americans who'd benefited from subsidized college funds and a majority of those who'd gotten continuing education credits or student loans said they'd never benefited from a government program. So did 44 percent of those on Social Security, 43 percent of those receiving unemployment benefits, 42 percent of veterans receiving VA benefits and 40 percent of Medicare recipients.

The reality is that the bulk of government programs do not serve the poor, or at least not exclusively.

Given that the Tea Partiers are more or less representative of the middle class, many would lose out, directly, if the politicians they elected were able to implement their radical agenda. And if their favorite politicians managed to cut the highly popular programs they call “entitlements”? Both the New York Times and Gallup polls also found that the Tea Partiers skew slightly older — 24 percent are retired, according to Gallup.

3. All That Silliness Cost Taxpayers Almost $2 Billion . . . So Far.

A New York Times poll of Tea Party supporters found what should be obvious to all: They are more “intense in their desires for a smaller federal government and deficit” than the rest of the population. They hate wasteful spending, and one would be hard-pressed to come up with a sillier use of tax dollars than on a depressing partisan food fight over the debt limit, a limit that was going to be raised eventually, no matter what. And that's just what happened, according to CNN:

The debt ceiling debacle has just cost U.S. taxpayers more than $1.7 billion.

That's the amount of additional interest the government had to pay investors Monday to sell Treasury bills that finance its operations.

To be precise, the extra cost is $1,721,250,000 more in interest payments than the government would have needed to pay investors just two weeks ago, when they were willing to accept far lower rates before the debt ceiling became a crisis.


"That's real money," said IHS chief economist Nariman Behravesh. "Taxpayers need to wake up to the fact that these kind of shenanigans in the end cost."


4. It's Going to Make the Government's Fiscal Picture Worse.

That $1.7 billion just covered the bonds sold on Monday. There's more to come. And when the economy slumps, it will further depress tax receipts, which are already at a 60-year low as a share of our economy, even as people need more government services to get by.

Higher interest payments on the public debt, lower tax revenues and more demand for government services — the great irony of this debt ceiling game has always been that playing it too hard would cause deficits to rise, not fall, over the medium- to long-term. As economist Paul Krugman put it, “Those demanding spending cuts now are like medieval doctors who treated the sick by bleeding them, and thereby made them even sicker.”

America lost big-time in this deal. Progressives lost as well. But the Tea Partiers — the rank and file — were by no means winners. And while they probably don't grasp exactly why, they know they lost something in the fight. While a slim majority of liberals approve of the debt deal, a CNN/ORC poll found that Americans who identify as Tea Partiers opposed the deal by a massive 68-27 margin (PDF).


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