A Government Shutdown Is Not the Tea Party's Last Stand

The shutdown could hurt the GOP brand, but not the tea party's.

Tea party activists attend a rally on the grounds of the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, June 19, 2013.

Tea party activists attend a rally on the grounds of the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, June 19, 2013.

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The GOP's 14,000 mile "Fire Pelosi" bus tour in 2010 was the Republican National Committee's successful attempt to harness the tea party's angst and energy for their benefit.

During the six-week tour, the red bus rolled through 48 states, firing up the base and mobilizing Republicans to turn out for a midterm election to snatch the speaker's gavel from Nancy Pelosi. The result? Eighty seven freshman Republicans in Congress, a GOP takeover of the House of Representatives, roughly 40 votes to repeal, dismantle or fix Obamacare and now a government shutdown.

The Tea Party's cause was always Obamacare, so could this moment, the precipice of all the rallies and marches and votes, lead to its demise?

"There is a fine line between standing on principle and living to fight another day," says John McHenry, a GOP pollster at North Star Opinion Research.

McHenry and others point to the government shutdown of 1995 and 1996 as evidence that the tea party may be having its last gasp. Back then, Republicans got the blame and Democrats were able to capitalize on the lapse in judgement in the following election.

"You are seeing some skepticism that the reported heads of the tea party have the best interests of the Republican party at heart," McHenry says.

But in 17 years, a lot has changed.

According to the Pew Research Center, the public's trust in Congress has dropped dramatically. And Republicans may not get the lion's share of the blame for a shutdown showdown, after all. The most recent poll conducted just before the government shutdown showed that 36 percent of American would blame President Obama and the Democrats while just a fraction more, 39 percent, would fault the Republicans.

GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak argues that not only is this shutdown not the demise of the tea party, it might actually be the resurgence of it, proof that the most conservative members of the Republican party are really driving the bus.

A host of Republicans opposed the Conservative faction of their party's approach to the shutdown when the topic was breached in July. Republicans like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., blasted fellow Republican Sen. Ted Cruz's, R-Texas, 21-hour talkathon on the Senate floor last week.

"They tried to undermine Cruz at every chance, but he stuck with it and he marshalled support," Mackowiak says. "He is leading the party."

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who has had a rocky relationship with his Conservative rank-and-file in the past, seems to be letting them run the show now. Boehner had hoped to stave off the Obamacare showdown until the debt ceiling increase, which will need to occur by Oct. 17.

Mackowiak says the tea party's leverage is actually increasing with every day the country gets closer to defaulting on its bills.

"The debt ceiling has to be raised and Democrats know that," Mackowiak says. "Pretty soon, they are not going to have the stronger hand."

And the tea party views the shutdown as a successful rallying call.

Jackie Bodnar, a spokesman for the tea party group FreedomWorks, reports she has seen more enthusiasm in her organization and its message since the shutdown began two days ago.

"I have heard a lot from our activists," Bodnar says. "This is why our activists work so hard to get out the vote for principled candidates like Mike Lee and Ted Cruz. They were elected as principled alternatives to fight against entrenched lawmakers who were not fighting the fight that mattered."