E.J. Dionne Jr.: Why GOP leaders must free themselves from the Tea Party's grip

Jul 22, 2011

Opinion writer E.J. Dionne Jr. will be online Friday, July 22 at 1:15 p.m. ET, to chat about his recent column, "GOP leaders must free themselves from the Tea Party's grip." In it he writes, "Unfortunately, neither of the two House leaders seems in a position to tell the obstreperous right that it is flatly and dangerously wrong when it claims that default is of little consequence. Rarely has a congressional leadership seemed so powerless."

Have a question about E.J.'s column and more? Ask now.

Greetings to all. I am looking forward to today's discussion and appreciate all who have already written in. My apologies in advance to those who make comments or ask questions that I can't get to. I will try especially hard to include the voices of those who have disagreed with what I have had to say recently. Disagreement, after all, is one of the joys of freedom. 

The GOP does not need the teaparty. Seems that the teaparty is stealing the limelight with its negative publicity. Its also standing in the way of Republicans who are moderate. Everntually, the whole party will be in a mess if it already hasn't happened.

Thanks. I agree that the Republicans need to think hard about where the Tea Party's ideology has led them. I still think that are quite a number of moderate conservatives who know that a balanced solution to the deficit problem will inevitably involve revenues -- yes, tax increases -- of some kind. What we should be arguing about is the right mix of cuts and revenues, and also the best ways to raise the money we need. 

Hiya EJ, Love your work! I'm far left of the President and the Dems, is there ANY hope of a progressive tea party like movement?

Thanks for the kind words. I don't see quite the same thing happening inside the Democratic Party because the circumstances are different. The Tea Party was the product of conservatives going into the opposition and also some disillusionment with President George W. Bush. But I think Progressives are organized inside the Democratic Party through a variety of groups -- Move On, the union movement, Campaign for America's Future, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and many others --- trying to put pressure on the president from the left and also trying to push the debate leftward. I think their voices have been especially forceful in this debt debate. But whatever the left does, it won't look exactly like the Tea Party movement. Thanks again.

Does no one see the parallels between the events of this summer and those of the summer of '71? It seems to me that the right wing has a grip on the Republican party that is similar in many ways to the grip the left wing had on the Democrats in '71. May we have a comment?

That's interesting, thanks, but I don't se the parallel, partly because there was still a big conservative wing inside the Democratic Party back in 1971, particular in the southern Democratic Congressional delegations. There are no Republicans willing to call themselves "liberal" and few moderates left. Yes, anti-war forces were gaining strength in '71 and they did nominate George McGovern in '72. But the Democrats were still far more diverse then than the GOP is now. Thanks again.

Why do you think the GOP House leadership seems so powerless to rein in the Tea Party? To me, it seems like a textbook Faustian bargain - the party was content to stoke the resentments of the Tea Partyers to build its power, scoring a majority in the House, but didn't realize what the cost would be. Too many of the new Tea Party officeholders act like they originally ran as protest candidates interested only in reducing their own tax burdens. They don't seem to grasp the distinction between macroeconomics and microeconomics, and assume that national economies and governments operate like household budgets. For me, the true danger from the Tea Partyers in the House is not their agenda or even their ideological rigidity but their blinkered incuriosity. It's almost like they're arrogant about their lack of knowledge. Shouldn't the more experienced GOPers in the House be able to take their neophyte colleagues to the political woodshed? And even if they have the ability, do they have the will?

I think the core difficulty is that moderates began leaving the Republican primary electorate in the mid-1990s. My friend and colleague Dan Balz wrote a brilliant piece after the 1996 election showing how suburban counties in the northeast and midwest -- for example, Montgomery and nearby counties around Philadelphia -- switched from voting for Republican moderates to voting for Clinton. Many of those voters never came back to the GOP. So the party's primary electorate is far more conservative than it used to be and Republican incumbents are very afraid of primaries from the right. Think, for example, of the defeat of Rep. Mike Castle in Delaware by Christine O'Donnell. Consider that that Sen. Orrin Hatch in Utah is likely to face a conservative challenge. Hatch, of course, is very conservative. So I think many Republicans are running scared, and with reason. Thanks for your thought.

The majority of Americans, including large numbers of Republicans, see the need for balancing budget cuts with revenue increases (ie taxes), I suspect a large number of the Republican members of congress know this, too. Why, then, this ability of the tea party House freshman to thwart all adult discussions about this? Doesn't Boehner have the ability to strip committee appointments, cease fundraising, etc., for these people? Doesn't he have some ability to put Cantor in his place if Cantor is running against him? He seems hesistant to use the powers of his station.

Thanks. I think the answer I gave above applies to this question, too. Republicans are worried about primaries from candidates to their right. I have heard talk of a few primaries to Tea Party members from more moderate conservatives next year, especially since Congressional districts will be reconfigured. But so far, that's just talk. We'll see if it happens.

You're what's known on the net as a "concern troll." Your "concern" for the GOP is a facade for your contempt.

No offense taken. Thanks for writing, and I kind of like that "concern troll" idea. But I don't think there is any facade here. I deeply, truly and openly believe that American conservatism has taken a wrong turn. I think conservatives have tossed away their more communitarian side and adopted a fairly radical form of individualism. I think it's a mistake for conservatives to define themselves only as a party that will fight tax increases. Conservatism is bigger than that. I don't hide the fact that I'm a liberal who would naturally disagree with the conservatives' position. But a while back I wrote a column on why we need a healthy conservatism that can really challenge those of us who are more progressive or liberal or whatever term you prefer. But sure, I concede that advice from liberals is not going to get conservatives to change their minds. I do hope for a robust debate inside conservatism after this debt fight is over. We'll see if it happens. Warmest wishes to you from this concern troll, and thanks again for writing in.

Do Tea Party Republicans truly understand what they want? On the one hand, I hear them call for never raising the debt ceiling, on the other hand, they also fight for any changes that may affect government programs close to them, like certain tax breaks or Medicare. Do they want a cafeteria-style federal government where their tax dollar only support the things that they want or do they want to seriously change how the government fuctions?

Yes, I know what you mean. He probably did better than I thought at the time in his last round with Boehner. Tea Party members certainly think Obama got the better of that deal, which is causing Boehner problems now. On the other hand, I wasn't wild, as you may know from my column, about the deal extending the Bush tax cut for the wealthy. This battle will be the ultimate test. I was heartened to see what the President said today. To quote the Post's story:

 “We can’t just close our deficit with spending cuts alone.” That would mean senior citizens would have to “pay a lot more for Medicare,” students would have trouble getting education loans, job training programs would be trimmed and there were be “devastating cuts” in medical and clean-energy research, he said.

So he has responded to criticism of the possibility of a deal with no revenue. But, yes, this has worried me, and I am not yet sure I'd want him to negotiate for me on a home or car purchase. But maybe this time, things will turn out better. Many thanks!


Heaven forbid. I'm a progressive and the last thing I want to see is my fellow progressives twisting history, oversimplifying issues, and pretending they speak for "real Americans."

Amen, and thanks. I think the earlier writer was more interested in the Tea Party's gift for getting attention, and its electoral successes in 2010. I think, by the way, that it's important for progressives to join the battle for American history. I agree with the Tea Party that we should find inspiration from our national past. But I think they are wrong in the way they read our history. I think there is a progressive trajectory to our national story, and will be making a case for that view over the next while. Thank you!

If Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling, will this be the biggest unforced error in the history of economic policy?

Agree. We have enough problems. We don't need to create wholly unnecessary crises! 

E.J., thanks for all your work and for doing this chat--please do another one soon! I don't see how the GOP can survive as a national organization if it allows the Tea Party to drive it further and further to the right, which is what seems to be happening. Do you? And a follow-up: If Romney gets the nomination (which I still see as the most likely outcome, given the depth of anti-Obama feeling), do you think TPers will turn out or bolt? Thanks.

My guess: Most of them don't bolt, but there might be a small movement to have a third party candidate on the right. My hunch is that the right of the GOP will concentrate on making sure its strongest supporters get re-elected, and give Romney support in passing because one of their central objective will be to defeat President Obama. Thank you.  

Sorry to get academic Mr. Dionne, but political theory tells us that eventually there will be a) the minimilization of the Republican Party and b) the rise of a party to the left of the Democratic Party. After a while the Republican Party is going to stop speaking to most voters because their base is literally starting to die off and they are too conservative for most independents. The Democrats, who have been dragged right by the Republicans are now actually about equally conservative with Ronald Reagan. This leaves a lot of people more progressive than the core of the Democratic party, and unless the Republicans shake loose of the Tea Party and the Radical Right, the Dem's will start getting serious challenges from the left. Eventually (say 30 years from now) the Democratic Party will be the conservative movement and some other party will be the progressive wing.

I don't think this is where things will go, but who knows? It's an interesting theory so I will share it with our readers. Thank you.

What I find interesting about the Republican Party is they have sheltered themselves into being the party of both economic conservatives and social policy conservatives, and even there they are demanding stricter and stricter adherence to both forms of conservatism. Even Rick Perry is affiliating with social conservatives that John McCain shunned. I do not know what the future holds, yet the Republican Party Presidential candidates all appear to be setting themselves up for the nomination but not on the November elections. Nixon used to say to run to the right in the primaries and then to the center in the general elections. I don't see too many Republicans who could capably pull off running in the center, do you?

Perhaps Huntsman could, and Romney will try if he gets the chance. Again, we'll see. Thanks for writing.

Hi E.J -- Thanks for your column and insights. I wonder if you could look beyond the current topic (debt ceiling) to the upcoming election. What impact do think the Tea Party will have in races from the presidency on down?

I think I gave a kind of answer to this earlier and, unfortunately, I am running out of time. I just wanted to say thanks for your kind thoughts.

I think the liberals like yourself try to play up this "tea party" controls the GOP thing more than it actually does. It blindsided a bunch of popular candidates in primaries and then lost almost all the major elections except ones a cardboard cutout could win if in the right party. The demonization of the tea party and anything remotely associated with it is also overblown. While there are some parts of any political movement (for example do you really want people to start going through the dirty laundry of ANSWER and other war protest movements on the left, when we know they were funded by hostile foreign entities) the tea party really just wants low taxes and reduced expenses. There is nothing philosophically wrong with this position, although the view that a default would be ok is misguided. I heard more about the tea party from MSNBC then anywhere else, I wonder why that is.

Wanted to give you your say before I go. The Tea Party did do poorly in Senate races, but they won a lot of House seats. And my criticism is based on the idea that they want a level of taxation that cannot support a size of government most Americans want and that the cuts that would be required would make us a less effective and less just country. But that's a very brief statement of a long argument -- the very argument we will be having between now and 2012. Thanks for writing. 

And thanks to all for participating today. Again, I apologize to those I couldn't reply to, but I will be doing this again. Have a great weekend!

In This Chat
E.J. Dionne Jr.
E.J. Dionne writes about politics in a twice-weekly column and on the PostPartisan blog. He is also a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, a government professor at Georgetown University and a frequent commentator on politics for National Public Radio, ABC's "This Week" and NBC's "Meet the Press." Before joining The Post in 1990 as a political reporter, Dionne spent 14 years at the New York Times, where he covered politics and reported from Albany, Washington, Paris, Rome and Beirut. He is the author of four books: "Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith & Politics After the Religious Right" (2008), "Stand Up Fight Back: Republican Toughs, Democratic Wimps, and the Politics of Revenge" (2004), "They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate The Next Political Era" (1996), and "Why Americans Hate Politics" (1991), which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was a National Book Award nominee. Dionne grew up in Fall River, Mass., attended Harvard College and was a Rhodes Scholar at Balliol College, Oxford. He lives in Bethesda, Md., with his wife and three children.
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