Why the Tea Party is taking the US to the brink

Last month Greg Walden, chairman of the National Republican Congressional committee, met with party donors at the trendy Le Cirque restaurant in midtown Manhattan. Those gathered wanted to know why the party seemed captive to the far right wing Tea Party faction of the Republican movement?

“Because the Tea Party will make sure that Republicans lose their primary (contests),” he told the group.

To understand who is driving the US government shutdown it is worth analysing those behind the Tea Party and their motivation. How is it possible that a relatively small faction of the Republican Party has the power to dictate terms? Particularly given that a Gallup poll from September found that only 38 per cent of Republicans consider themselves supporters of the Tea Party – a figure which has collapsed since 2010 when 65 per cent of Republicans aligned themselves with the group.

Now there is a distinct schism among conservatives with the Tea Party, headed by the likes of 2012 presidential candidate Michele Bachman and likely 2016 presidential candidate Rand Paul on one side and those who have started calling themselves “reasonable Republicans”, which include 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain and 2012 vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, on the other.

While the government shutdown may have come as a surprise to some, it is a strategy that has been brewing for a year now.

Former Attorney General Edwin Meese III called conservatives for a meeting in November last year where a blueprint was agreed upon which would see the Republicans shut down the government unless changes were made to the Affordable Care Act, a centrepiece of Barack Obama’s legislative agenda which requires Americans to purchase health care.

Republicans were given a “tool kit” which provided them with party lines to roll out when they were blamed for not funding the government.

 “We are simply calling to fund the entire government except for the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare,” was one such suggestion.

Those Republicans who have spoken out against the strategy have been targeted by the Tea Party in attack ads – just as Walden predicted.

Senator Richard Burr, who labelled the shutdown strategy “the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard”, was hit with a two-week advertising assault in his home state of North Carolina.

“What's dumb is for Richard Burr to vote to fund a government program like Obamacare that will do so much harm to North Carolina families," the ad said.

Senators Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina were also subjected to a shot across the bows by their ultra conservative colleagues.

Where the Tea Party has been successful is in mobilising grassroots supporters, something both mainstream Republicans and Democrats alike have largely failed to do.

Dozens of ginger groups have sprung up in support of the Tea Party, such as the Tea Party Patriots, Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, Freedom Partners, Club for Growth, Generation Opportunity, Young Americans for Liberty, Heritage Action, the Senate Conservatives Fund, American Commitment and the 60 Plus Association.

This columnist spoke to or left messages for every single one of the above-named organisations but none were willing to talk. Hardly encouraging at a time when the Tea Party would argue that the thrust of their argument is not being heard or understood.

But let’s take a look at some of the organisations which, to their credit, have achieved some success.

Freedom Partners, closely tied to billionaire business brothers Charles and David Koch who helped start the Tea Party in 2009, is one of the biggest donors to Republicans. Membership requires yearly dues of at least $US100,000 ($105,925) and the organisation boasts more than 200 of those members. While it doesn’t advocate shutting down the government, it does donate to many organisations that do.

Generation Opportunity and Young Americans for Liberty are more focused on attracting young adults and small-spend, but viral, advertising campaigns that promote the defunding of Obamacare. The former was gifted $US5 million by a group linked to the Koch brothers for advertising, including an internet ad showing a menacing Uncle Sam figure popping up between a woman’s legs during a gynaecological exam. 

Young Americans for Liberty target university campuses and FreedomWorks is behind the “Burn Your Obamacare Card” protests. 

Then there is the Senate Conservatives Fund, a group established by former Senator Jim DeMint, which says its aim is “electing true conservatives”. It established the dontfundobamacare.com website in July and has to date got more than 2 million signatures against the health care law.

Heritage Action provides a website that gives Democrats and Republicans scorecards based on their voting records. Tea Party favourite Senator Ted Cruz has a 100 per cent rating, followed by dozens of other Republicans. Little-known Tennessee Democrat Jim Cooper is the highest rated from his party at 40 per cent – just 2 percentage points lower than John McCain, the man the Republicans chose to be their president in 2008. 

Heritage Action was also responsible for running internet ads against 100 Republican politicians who failed to sign a letter to House Speaker John Boehner encouraging him to defund Obamacare at any cost.

However, on Wednesday its chief executive Michael Needham softened his group’s position against allowing a potential credit default on October 17 by saying the debt ceiling should be raised regardless of whether Obamacare is defunded or not.

Overnight House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner announced that Republicans would put forward a deal that would avoid a government default on its debt – at least for another six weeks.

Perhaps he was watching the polls which showed disapproval of Republicans’ handling of the budget showdown had climbed to 70 per cent of those surveyed, up from 63 per cent a week earlier, according to The Washington Post/ABC News. Disapproval of Obama’s role remained unchanged at 51 per cent.

The Tea Party has employed a bullyboy, take-no-prisoners approach which is specifically targeting different sections of the community. The main reason that the group has been so effective however is because they are hitting politicians where it hurts the most – threatening their jobs by challenging their preselection. It seems it is not just everyday Americans who value job security.

Mathew Murphy is a Walkley Award winning journalist based in New York.