The tea party’s pinata

    Poor John Boehner. One minute the House Speaker is talking like a grown-up, warning about the political and logistical perils of a federal government shutdown – and the next minute, he’s pandering to the tea-partiers who don’t have the faintest clue that compromise is crucial to governance.Boehner’s dilemma is understandable. If he caves to the extremists in his ranks (the people who don’t understand how governing works when two parties share power), by insisting that the current budget be radically slashed in accordance with tea-party demands, and the Democrats refuse to bow down, and the government goes dark this weekend when it runs out of money….well, Boehner thinks he knows darn well who the public is going to blame. As he reportedly told his colleagues Monday night, “The Democrats think they benefit from a government shutdown. I agree.” And as a Boehner ally told Politico, such a shutdown would be “a disaster in the making for Republicans.” Why? Because the public intuitively knows that the Democrats are the party of government, and that shutting it down would never be their idea.On the other hand, if Boehner is seen by the tea-partiers as caving to the Democrats – if he governs as a grown-up and takes the deal currently on the table, a deal that would cut the current budget by $33 billion for the rest of the fiscal year, which in itself would be the biggest discretionary cut in history – then he’s likely to feel serious pain from the tea-partiers’ pitchforks.Oblivious to political reality, they have long been treating Boehner like a pinata, whacking him for any perceived refusal on his part to rubber-stamp their overreach. A few weeks back, Judson Phillips, founder of one of the many tea-party groups, railed that “Charlie Sheen is making more sense than John Boehner,” because the latter was acting “squishy” about the tea-partiers’ demands for cuts as high as $100 billion; earlier this week, Phillips followed up by threatening to find a right-winger who will challenge Boehner in the next House Republican primary (“There are currently some very specific plans by some very serious people,” Phillips warned – perhaps as a bluff, but clearly indicative of the intolerant tea-party mood).And Phillips was echoed the other day by Jenny Beth Martin, who coordinates a different tea-party group. She told the press in Washington: “If (Republicans) are not making the spending cuts that the American people want, there will probably be primaries next year.”There it is again, the self-delusional belief that the tea-parties represent “the American people.” They may have a choke-hold on Boehner, and they may be driving the Republican bus with one hand on the wheel and the cliff looming larger on the horizon, but they do not represent “the American people.” It is far more accurate to say that they represent a vocal, out-of-the-mainstream minority.In a recent CNN-Opinion Research Corp. poll, only 32 percent of Americans said they had a favorable view of the tea-party crowd – a five-point drop since December. Meanwhile, in a new Pew Research Center poll out this week, 55 percent of Americans favor a budget compromise to keep the government running, while only 36 percent said that no principles should be compromised even if it leads to a shutdown. Swing-voting independents favored compromise by 53-38 percent. By contrast, only 26 percent of tea-partiers favored compromise, with 68 percent saying no.Another major survey has detected growing swing-voter resistance to the tea-party notion that government is inherently the enemy. According to the bipartisan NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, 51 percent of independents now believe that “government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people” – a 13-point hike since last October, when independents were similarly asked whether the government should do more or less. And this shift in sentiment should not come as a surprise. The independents who showed up to vote last November were generally unhappy with the state of the union (particularly the jobless rate), but there was scant evidence, even then, that they endorsed the tea-partiers’ desire to gut the government.They don’t, as the fresh polling evidence makes clear. The problem, however, is that the tea-party mentality dominates the GOP as we lurch toward a shutdown. Mike Pence, the conservative Indiana congressman and tea-party darling (who wants to leverage his tea-party popularity for a possible gubernatorial bid), unleashed this verbal doozy the other day: “Sometimes the most reasonable thing in the legislative process is to be unreasonable.”So, poor Boehner. He needs to get something that will pass both chambers, one of which is controlled by the Democrats. In other words, reality. But he leads a tea-stained party that prides itself on being unreasonable, a party that’s ill-inclined to tolerate his occasional forays into grown-up dialogue (such as this remark, last Friday: “If you shut the government down, it’ll end up costing more than you’ll save because you interrupt contracts – there are a lot of problems with shutting the government down”).One Boehner ally, Idaho congressman Mike Simpson, sought yesterday to rebuke the tea partiers by quoting the legendary 19th-century lawmaker Henry Clay (“If you cannot compromise, you cannot govern”), but the fringe that drives the GOP would surely dismiss Clay as an irrelevant dead guy. Far more relevant, apparently, is the tea-party activist who last week, at a Washington rally, chided Boehner as a wimp who wears “lace panties.”For this, John Boehner dreamed of being House Speaker? As the old adage goes, watch out what you wish for.

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