Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Tea Party Is Still Winning

by Leslie S. Lebl

Like many, I've been reading all about the decline of the Tea Party, its relative invisibility in the Republican nominating process, and the widespread dissatisfaction with Republican members of Congress, many of whom were swept into office by the Tea Party. However, I'd like to add my two bits to the discussion before we hold a public funeral for the movement. 

Of course the Tea Party is quiet: none of the candidates really speak to them. It's discouraging, but on the other hand, look at it this way:

-- which Republican nominee would speak in favor of retaining Obamacare?

-- which Republican nominee is prepared to say that the federal debt isn't important?

You got it - none of them. That's because the Tea Party has succeeded in highlighting problems that can no longer be swept under the rug. Look what happened when Gingrich denigrated Paul Ryan's budget proposal, which contains the first public commitment to reform Medicare (and which was passed by the Republican House of Representatives). He had to eat crow.

What I find really interesting is that so many people (among them, I assume, many Tea Partiers) are focusing on electability. That's a bitter lesson learned in 2010, and it's clear people don't want to repeat the mistakes made then, especially with regard to key Senate races. That, folks, is real progress.

As for the low favorability numbers of Republicans in Congress: who would ever expect the guy trying to stop the spending to become popular? Look at Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin: he's facing a recall vote even though he saved lots of union jobs. The real lesson Tea Partiers have learned is that House Republicans can't make much headway resisting every bill raising the debt ceiling. While I suspect many people are disappointed, I'm confident that the majority understand that what's needed is systemic entitlement reform, which can't be done by only one House of Congress.

My prediction: as the Republican nominating process advances, watch the frontrunners come under pressure to formulate policies attractive to the Tea Party, hopefully framed in ways that attract support from Independents. The Tea Party may not have its nominee, but it will try to shape the platform of the party and persuade the nominee to espouse its positions. And it will have logic on its side. With U.S. obligations downgraded and our debt now equal to our GDP, it's pretty hard to argue that the level of government spending isn't a problem.

Only if the Tea Party fails to do this will I agree that it is a spent political force.
A retired Foreign Service Officer, Leslie S. Lebl is a writer, consultant and lecturer. In the Foreign Service, Ms. Lebl served as Minister-Counselor for Political Affairs at the U.S. Mission to the European Union in Brussels. Prior to that, she was Political Advisor to the Commander of Stabilization Forces (SFOR) in Bosnia-Herzegovina, first in the American sector in Tuzla and then at SFOR headquarters in Sarajevo. Other assignments included Russia, the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York, Bolivia, Germany and Poland, as well as a year as diplomat-in-residence at Yale University. She speaks French, German, Russian, Polish and Spanish. She is currently at work on a book about radical Islam and the European Union.

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