Tea Party power nears a boiling point

With the Republican Party essentially leaderless, a second cliff looming and GOP safe seats enticing challengers from within, expect the Tea Party's principles to go into overdrive.

The Tea Party was written off as a spent force after November. Much like Occupy Wall Street, the funny radicals in three-cornered hats seemed destined to fade away. But the obituaries arrived too soon. In scheduling in the next cliff to coincide with the expiry of America’s sovereign debt ceiling, President Barack Obama has handed them an opportunity. The next seven weeks will be the Tea Party’s point of maximum leverage. The goal will be to conserve it for as long as possible (the more cliffs the better). But the urge for a showdown will also be strong.

They will be aided by the fact that the Republican party is essentially leaderless. Last Thursday, John Boehner escaped the usual mockery for having choked up when he took the speaker’s gavel. This time people sympathised: any sane person would sob at the prospect of leading today’s Republicans. The chances of glory are few in a party of disaffecteds bent on bringing their leaders to heel. Last week barely a third of Boehner’s fellow House Republicans joined him in voting for the mini-deal to avert the first fiscal cliff – and set up the next one (just 52 days away). Sentiment has since hardened. One Fox commentator branded Republicans who voted for it as "Profiles in cowardice”.

Many of those who held their noses and approved the tax increases knew their vote would be held against them. Paul Ryan, the former vice-presidential candidate, and 2016 hopeful, tried to make amends on Friday. In voting against a belated measure to permit $9.7 billion in new debt to help victims of superstorm Sandy, Ryan said it "would be irresponsible to raise an insolvent program’s debt ceiling without making the necessary reforms”. No prizes for guessing which ceiling he was really talking about. Nor for assessing the 2016 motivations of Marco Rubio, the senator from Florida, who voted against last week’s mini-deal.

Many last week hoped Obama had finally delivered on his pledge to "break the fever” gripping the Republican party with passage of the tax increase – the first in 22 years. But the mercury has risen since then. The 113th Congress that was sworn in on Thursday looks even more polarised than the 112th – the least productive in modern US history. The mini-cliff vote would probably have gone more heavily against Boehner had it been held with the new intake. Last month I was invited to attend the Harvard Kennedy School’s biennial crash course for congressional freshman. Of the 84 newly elected lawmakers, 47 attended the three-day session. Of those only eight were Republicans, which, excluding Newt Gingrich’s 1994 boycott, was their lowest attendance ever. "It is becoming very unbalanced,” said Joseph Nye, the course’s host.

Yet the incentive for the two parties to rub shoulders keeps dwindling. Last November’s results reflected one of the most gerrymandered Congresses ever – after the 2010 census Republicans locked in a record number of very safe districts. That means a higher share of Republicans than before fear a challenge from their own base rather than defeat to a Democrat in a general election. Now is the best time to indulge their principles. Most can ignore America’s rapidly changing demography until the next census in 2020. As Ryan said last week, conservatives have a unique opportunity to put an end to America’s "out-of-control spending”.

Which leaves us in a volatile situation. Last week Obama said he would refuse to negotiate with Republicans over the debt ceiling. To be fair, it is never wise to agree to a game of nuclear poker with Dr Strangelove. Yet in practice Obama will have no choice (indeed it was he who last month introduced the debt ceiling into the fiscal cliff talks). It is hard to believe the Republicans will bring everlasting obloquy on themselves by precipitating a sovereign default. That outcome must still be the least likely. But a leaderless party bent on revenge cannot be a reliable negotiating partner.

Having vowed never again to hold talks with Obama, Boehner now faces a choice: either allow the Republican House to be routinely bypassed because it is too fractious to agree (last week’s deal was struck between Joe Biden, the vice-president, and Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader). That would turn him into a lame duck speaker. Or pass a majority bill in the House that links approval in the debt ceiling to a program of heavy spending cuts – then dare Obama and the Democratic Senate to shoot it down. The first leads to impotence. It seems clear which path Boehner will choose.

Thus the question hanging over Washington is not when the majority of Republicans will see the bipartisan light. There is little chance of that happening in the 113th Congress. It is whether they dive into their own political abyss in unison or in pieces. Obama knows Republicans are splittable on many issues, including immigration. But they are unified against further taxes and in favour of deep spending cuts (excluding defence). They are also unanimous on using the threat to America’s full faith and credit as a bargaining tool. The real question is whether Boehner can lead them when it counts.

The next few weeks might prove to be a vale of tears for the Republican speaker. Sympathy will be in order as we watch him try to create a coherent party from the raw material he has.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013.

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