“Thank you, Mr. President. Signed, John Boehner.”
Deep beneath the year-round tan, the Camel Ultra Lights and the merlot, there beats a grateful heart. Somebody had to take on the Tea Party that has turned Boehner’s tenure as House speaker into a living hell.
Too bad for Republicans, that someone was a Democrat rather than one of their own, which would have signaled that the party is fit to govern. By calling the bluff of a tiny band of burn-the-place-down Tea Party activists leading their colleagues over domestic (the government shutdown) and global (the debt ceiling) cliffs, Barack Obama exposed the fact that they didn’t come to Washington to fix anything, only to tear everything but air-traffic control down.
The meltdown on Capitol Hill doesn’t mean the end of the Tea Party. In fact, most of those lawmakers accurately point out that they are doing what the constituents in their painfully drawn, one-sided, overwhelmingly white, aging, anti-gay, anti-immigrant, science-denying districts want. Still, there are emerging signs -- from declining poll numbers to the breach with the Republican Party’s traditional business allies -- that the act is getting old. Mess with Democratic totems such as Social Security and nutritional programs for pregnant mothers, send Sarah Palin to Washington periodically to pour salt on open wounds, but don’t mess with Treasury bills and the markets.
There was no convincing extremists ahead of time. Like excited children at the fair, the Tea Party had to eat too much ice cream and see the whole party get sick, and even then, they couldn’t stop themselves. But some of them had to be queasy when they saw an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll last week: Only 24 percent of Americans had a favorable view of the Republican Party, the lowest ever. By eight points, the public said it preferred a Congress controlled by the Democrats over one in Republican hands. Positive feelings toward the Tea Party fell to an all-time low.
That would turn the stomach of the heartiest anarchist. Rather than be an enduring movement of concerned grass-roots activists, the Tea Party has become a well-financed faction of the Republican Party bankrolled by business interests such as the Koch brothers to push a narrow agenda of regressive taxes, opposition to unions and the rollback of regulations.
They went too far. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce sent a letter signed by about 250 business groups asking members of Congress to stop their shenanigans. Wall Street titans such as JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chairman Jamie Dimon and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Chief Executive Officer Lloyd Blankfein, alarmed that a small band of extremists is blithely considering bringing down the global economy, are pleading with the Republican leadership to rein in the renegades.
Voters may do that for them. Evidence of a declining Tea Party is also apparent in a few of the movement’s strongholds. Take the prince of the Tea Party, Michigan Representative Justin Amash. He tried to depose Boehner as speaker and considered a measure to defund Planned Parenthood not draconian enough. Rather than having to face a challenge from the far right, here comes one from a mainline conservative and pro-business investment adviser, Brian Ellis, who says the way Amash governs is “disruptive and chaotic” -- two words businessmen dislike more than taxes or regulation.
And look what has happened to Senator Mike Lee of Utah, a Tea Party darling since his surprising defeat in 2010 of Robert Bennett, a beloved conservative senator. He’s become sidekick to Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, chiming in during the recent filibuster about a childhood accident and his dream of being a pirate.
Lee is one of the new lawmakers who have been dubbed “wacko birds” by Senator John McCain of Arizona. Karl Rove said Lee’s scorched-earth strategy was “the one tactic that might be able to guarantee that the Democrats pick up seats in the Congress in 2014.” Even Lee’s friend and Capitol Hill roommate, Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, refused to back his plan to defund the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Lee’s favorable rating has dropped 10 percentage points since a June Brigham Young University poll, which doesn’t skew liberal. More than half of Utah voters see him unfavorably; 57 percent said he should be more willing to compromise. In a separate survey, a majority of Utah voters now disapprove of the Tea Party’s influence.
Like Amash, Lee will be challenged from his left. Josh Romney and Dan Liljenquist are waiting in the wings. If Lee survives that primary contest, there’s an excellent chance that Democratic Representative Jim Matheson -- who’s been gerrymandered into unwinnable districts twice but still wins -- could win a statewide race in the reddest state in the country.
Utah Republicans have been heading toward buyer’s remorse for some time. At last year’s convention in Salt Lake City, a robust 125,000 Republicans turned out. This was a reaction to the 2010 convention, when 50,000 Tea Party activists took over and eliminated Bennett in favor of Lee. By 2012, the establishment was back in charge, and Bennett got a long and loud standing ovation. At that same convention, Senator Orrin Hatch easily won the nomination and re-election.
Here’s another suggestion for thank-you notes: “Dear Senator Bennett, thank you for taking one for the establishment. Signed, Senator Hatch.”
And Senator Lee, watch out. Jim Matheson may have a note for you in 2016.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.)
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