Debt Ceiling Stalemate Illustrates the Tea Party's Reality Gap

The politics of dysfunction reign in Washington

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Remember the old Mario Cuomo truism that we campaign in poetry and govern in prose? It neatly encapsulated the necessary gap between the campaign trail and the halls of power: You seek office aspirationally, but once elected you must cooperate with reality. And the reality of our system of government is that it requires deal-making and compromise, a notion which even grade schoolers grasp with the concept of checks and balances. As President Obama noted in one of his recent press conferences, American democracy works when people are "willing to make some sensible compromises to solve big problems."

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Indeed Obama is the poster child for the reality gap between rhetoric and governance. His impressive record of accomplishment is unsatisfying to progressives who feel he promised more (and is too ready to seek "sensible compromise"). Perhaps it is fitting, then, that arrayed in opposition to Obama is a party of self-described conservatives seemingly intent on rewriting the basic political rule that compromise makes the government go 'round. [Check out photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]

What we have witnessed as the debt ceiling debate of 2011 has unfolded is the logical result of a politics of purity that has grown in the GOP in recent years. It found full voice last year in the Tea Party movement, which prided itself on its promises of inflexibility, rooted in the conventional wisdom canard that the country is fundamentally conservative. Any GOP losses, the thinking goes, are voters' punishment of insufficient ideological fidelity, so the appropriate response is not moderation but retrenchment. (Never explained is why conservatives would stray in the first place if their philosophy is so popular.)

As a matter of campaign politics, the purity promise last year was a mixed blessing for the GOP. Delaware's Christine O'Donnell, Nevada's Sharron Angle, and Colorado's Ken Buck—Tea Party favorites who won primaries against more electable alternatives—cost the Republicans three winnable Senate seats. [See political cartoons about the Tea Party.]

Many pundits predicted that once in office, the House GOP majority would adapt to the rules of governance, likely by the party leaders harnessing and containing the wild-eyed newcomers. But the pundits didn't understand the extent to which absolutism has infected the GOP. Likewise, however, the GOP puritans fail to understand that they are subject to the rules of politics no matter how much they wish to ignore them, in the same way a falling man is subject to gravity regardless of how much he denies it to the approaching ground.

This is what gravity looks like, in the context of the debt ceiling fight: A CBS News poll released last week found that 71 percent of Americans, including 51 percent of Republicans, disapprove of the way the GOP has handled the situation. Earlier this month Quinnipiac University released a poll showing 48 percent of Americans would blame Republicans if the debt ceiling wasn't raised, as opposed to only 34 percent who would blame Obama. And why? Because despite Tea Party dogma, Americans like compromise, not obstinacy. A Gallup poll last week found that 66 percent of Americans—including 57 percent of GOPers—favor compromise in the debt ceiling debate over a hard-line stand. Last week Gallup reported that 20 percent of Americans want to reduce the deficit the GOP way (cutting spending alone) while 69 percent want both cuts and new revenue. In short, Americans prefer Obama's approach on both substance and style. [See 6 consequences if the debt ceiling isn't raised.]

Where does that leave the GOP? Caught in a political feedback loop with its fringe marching it—to use Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's phrase when he flew the debt ceiling white flag this month—"into a position where we have co-ownership of a bad economy." McConnell, a politician experienced enough to know how things work, surrendered in the face of economic reality. Unwilling to crash the economy, he proposed a solution wherein Obama would get to raise the debt ceiling while the GOP repeatedly scored political points off of him for it. But McConnell was, literally, denounced as a Judas by the party's base. They see no reason to give ground in a debate they frankly don't understand. [See political cartoons about the economy.]