Yves here. While I agree with most of Black’s assessment, I take issue with his Fox News v. James Stewart/Stephen Colbert argument. Each preaches to its own choir. One can also argue that the Tea Party is still misunderstood. Michael Lind provided the best single analysis I’ve seen so far in a piece that describes it as the “newest right” which promotes the interests of “local notables” who are wealthy leaders in their communities but second-tier nationally. Thus Tea Partiers are best positioned to act as spoilers rather than drive national political initiatives. But as Black indicates, they may have played the spoiler role too aggressively in the shutdown/debt ceiling row for their own long-term good.
By Bill Black, the author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One and an associate professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Cross posed from New Economic Perspectives
The Tea Party and its (non) think tanks have proven that they are tactically brilliant in manipulating the Republican Party, but strategically incompetent. Today’s Senate Bill, which will be forced down the House Tea Party members’ throats, is the result of that strategic incompetence. The Tea Party has learned that there are a few things many GOP elected officials are still unwilling to do. Specifically, once the admittedly slow-witted House GOP leadership realized that the Tea Party had marched it to the far edge of a bridge to nowhere and the choices were (Option One: suicide) to keep marching off the bridge into the river (doing grave harm to the Nation and the world, ruining the GOP “brand,” returning the House to control by the Democratic Party, and threatening their own seats or (Option Two: truce) to stop and beg the Democrats for a truce – the GOP leadership would abandon the Tea Party and blame it for the humiliating rout.
The Tea Party and entities like Heritage understand how to extort the Republican Party and its Congressional leaders. They made it seem to be political suicide for the House GOP leadership and members not to support the Tea Party’s extortion tactics against Obamacare. The Tea Party’s assumption that tactics that excelled against the GOP leadership would excel against the Democratic Party exhibited their lack of strategic understanding and proved that self-described “think tanks” like Heritage are oxymorons run by regular morons in which any thinking that differs from accepted dogma is grounds for instant expulsion of the apostate, e.g., David Frum.
The Tea Party strategy to defund Obamacare suffered from four fatal defects that were widely understood outside the Tea Party’s temples. First, Obamacare is President Obama’s signature “legacy” accomplishment and his senior staff revealed that Obama had already begun to obsess about his legacy by mid-2011. The GOP was demanding something that Obama could not give them.
Second, the means by which the GOP sought to extort Obama to sacrifice Obamacare made it impossible for Obama to surrender to the Tea Party. The Tea Party was openly threatening to use very short-term extensions of the debt ceiling to repeatedly extort Obama to make enormous, humiliating concessions. This meant that if Obama gave in to their extortion he was dooming his presidency. He would no longer have any meaningful domestic powers and would be mocked for his powerlessness and cowardice in refusing to stand up to the Tea Party. Indeed, because Obama promised not to give the GOP any concessions in response to extortion over the budget or debt ceiling he would also destroy his credibility should he cave to the Tea Party’s demands.
Third, neither of the Tea Party’s pressure points (shutting down the government and threatening to cause a default on U.S. debts) could work mechanically to shut down Obamacare. That meant that they could only succeed as means of extortion if they (a) caused so much damage to the Nation and the world that it became essential to end the extortion within at most a few days and (b) the Nation and the world would blame Obama rather than the Tea Party for the Tea Party’s actions. The Tea Party’s threat was taken straight out of the riff in the movie Blazing Saddles where the sheriff, threatened by a lynch mob, pulls his gun, points it as his head, and warns the mob that if they don’t stop he’ll shoot. The reason it’s a joke is that it is nonsensical. The Tea Party saw the movie and loved the riff, but they never “got” the joke. The Tea Party understood that threatening to force a U.S. default was the equivalent of wielding an elephant gun. The Tea Party forgot that they were pointing the gun at their own head, but everyone else saw that they had done so and wondered when they would wise up.
Fourth, the Tea Party remembered the Fox network but forgot the existence of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert’s Colbert Report. Every time Fox tried to claim that the Tea Party was not responsible for its actions the denial created an opening for Stewart and Colbert to roll the tape on what the Tea Party caucus members had actually said, including classics such as Rep. Marlin Stutzman’s admission: “We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”
The Tea Party’s transcendent strategic failure however was picking Obamacare as the objective rather than the safety net. I have been warning that Obama’s confidants have repeatedly revealed that Obama believes his best hopes of a positive “legacy” is what he calls the “Grand Bargain” (which I explained actually represented the “Grand Betrayal”). The Grand Betrayal would raise some taxes, make materially deeper discretionary spending cuts in social programs, and make very large but opaque cuts in the safety net. The Grand Betrayal would inflict triple damage on our Nation. It would inflict even greater austerity, further weakening the recovery. It would harm effective social programs at a time when they are most needed give the large increases in poverty. It would harm the safety net directly and would serve to legitimize much deeper cuts in the future when the GOP controls the federal government. Only a president that the GOP can portray as a “liberal” can make it safe for Republicans to attack the safety net and to work towards their great dream – privatizing Social Security so that Wall Street’s billionaires can get even wealthier by looting our retirement savings.
Obama has been eagerly seeking to inflict the Grand Betrayal since 2011. The irony is that had he succeeded the resultant second recession would have made him a one-term president. The Tea Party has prevented the deal by being unwilling to take “yes” for an answer from Obama. The Tea Party could have skipped all the extortion and negotiated the Grand Betrayal with Obama. The Republican leadership has attempted to negotiate the deal, but the Tea Party keeps blocking it. Nevertheless, the Grand Betrayal is so available and so obviously in the political interests of the GOP and the Tea Party that the odds remain good that even the Tea Party will eventually say yes and give Obama the legacy he desires as the Democrat who led the unraveling of the safety net. Obama may yet snatch defeat from victory and the Tea Party, when all else fails, may snatch victory from defeat by agreeing to the Grand Betrayal.