Tea Party Should Declare Budget Victory and Go Home

The GOP has won the first budget battle of 2011. Will the Tea Party accept victory?

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The Tea Partyers are coming to Washington today, rallying in front of the Capitol just as a deal to avert a government shutdown seems to be inching into view. I wonder how they’ll greet this widely reported news. What they should do is declare victory, congratulate themselves, and laud House Speaker John Boehner, as they all got a win disproportionate to their power. But probably they’ll fulminate against the liberal Senate Democrats (of course) and gnash their teeth at weak-kneed House Republicans.

Here’s why they should declare victory and pat all concerned on the back: The emerging spending agreement will fund the government for the remaining six months of the fiscal year while cutting $33 billion in federal spending. For perspective, House Republican leaders had originally asked for $32 billion in spending reductions. So they will come out of this negotiation in a better position than they started—a win by any standard, especially when you consider that the House is one of three entities at the negotiating table (along with the Senate and the White House). It’s not like they are in a position to dictate terms. How’d they manage that? Tea Party conservatives rebelled and pushed House leaders to a $61 billion spending cut mark which made $33 a rough midpoint compromise. In this case the Tea Party played the role of vocal minority perfectly, drawing the budget debate’s center for gravity to the right. [Check out political cartoons about the budget and the deficit.]

But vocal minorities are a double-edged political sword, especially because they have trouble accepting victory when it comes in the form of compromise. Tea Partyers who think that they have a special insight into the will of the people will compare the $33 billion in cuts against the $61 billion or even the $100 billion upon which the GOP campaigned. For a movement in which compromise is anathema, winning a compromise means some element of surrender. [See editorial cartoons about the Tea Party.]

And they should take the win, because they larger trends are running against them. Polls show that while Americans favor cuts in the abstract, they oppose the specific cuts that conservatives want to make. And more specifically to the Tea Party, the more people know them, the less popular they are. CNN released a poll this week showing that nearly half of U.S. adults--47 percent--view the movement unfavorably, while only 32 percent view it favorably. While the favorable figure has varied little from CNN’s first poll about the Tea Party, in January 2010 (when 33 percent viewed them favorably), the unfavorable number has moved relentlessly upward, from 26 percent to its current lofty position. For perspective, that 47 percent is roughly the same disapproval rating the two major parties enjoy, so perhaps one can say that the Tea Party has finally gone mainstream.

The New York Times’s Nate Silver put together a nice chart of approval/disapproval poll numbers for the Tea Party and the trend is clear: favorability remains flat while the negatives keep climbing. Silver writes:

I’ve long been of the view that the Tea Party, despite nominating poor candidates in a couple of key races, was a significant net positive for the G.O.P. in 2010, both because it contributed to the “enthusiasm gap” and because it helped an unpopular Republican Party to re-brand itself in never-out-of-style conservative draping. But if the Tea Party ain’t over yet, the point in time at which it was an electoral asset for Republicans soon may be.

While the Tea Party may now see $33 billion as inadequate, the rest of us may later look at it as a high water mark.

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