Tea Party's "intensified war": Why the GOP's happy time is about to end

Celebrated Harvard professor says that even if they win the Senate, GOP leadership has a problem on the horizon

Published October 28, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)

Tea Party supporter William Temple                   (AP/David Goldman)
Tea Party supporter William Temple (AP/David Goldman)

As pundits and wonks have been telling us since basically the day after President Obama was reelected — and as Nate Silver and others' forecast oracles still insist — we're probably going to wake up on Jan. 3 of next year with a brand-new, Republican-controlled U.S. Senate. (I know, I know; you're not sure you can wait.)

But while a lot of ink has been spilled in anticipation of how a GOP Congress will clash with Senate Democrats and President Obama, less attention is being paid to what might happen within the Republican Party once the post-victory honeymoon is over. Will a newly unified Congress be the first step toward a final end to the GOP's civil war? Or will GOP leadership soon find that winning in 2014 was the easy part?

To answer those questions and others about our possible near-future, Salon recently spoke with Harvard's Theda Skocpol, the influential professor of sociology and political science who in 2011 released "The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism," which is still perhaps the definitive analysis of the movement. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

A few years ago, back when the Tea Party was relatively new, you and your co-author, Vanessa Williamson, wrote what I still consider to be the most useful in-depth study of the Tea Party. Now that it's been a few years, do you think the media has integrated any of your analysis into how it talks about the Tea Party? Are there any big misconceptions that you think persist?

I think it's hard for most analysts in the media to get away from the idea that popularity of the label in national opinion polls, or victory of self-described Tea Party candidates in Republican primaries — they tend to treat those as the primary indicators of whether the Tea Party is successful.

But as we explained in our book, the Tea Party is a set of organizations, top down and bottom up, that have exerted a lot of leverage on Republican candidates and officeholders. Sometimes they've directly challenged them in primaries — and I think those challenges are important — but this is a phenomenon that represents the more active half of Republican base voters, and ... their aim has been to get Republican officeholders and candidates to toe a certain policy line, and not to compromise with Democrats. And they've been extremely successful in that. They continue to be very successful.

You hear a narrative sometimes that says that in 2014, unlike 2010 and 2012, the establishment of the Republican Party did a good job of keeping unelectable Tea Party radicals off the ballot. Then, depending on the source, that assertion is sometimes cited as proof that in the war to control the GOP, the establishment won. I'm guessing you disagree?

Yeah, I don't agree with that at all.

First of all, the so-called unelectable, odd candidates that they're talking about from earlier cycles are people like the woman in Delaware who said she wasn't a witch [Christine O'Donnell], and Todd Akin in Missouri ... It would be hard to say what a Tea Party candidate is, but [Akin and O'Donnell] were as much Christian right candidates [as Tea Party ones], in any event, in terms of where they came from and who they were speaking to in the Republican electorate.

More to the point, [saying the establishment won] is a little bit like noting that a group of generals, after losing most of their army, have retaken a hill, but not noticing that the entire battlefield has switched to the terrain that the opponent wanted it to be fought on. That's what's happened in the Republican Party. It's very hard to find Republican leaders who are not adopting pretty extreme Tea Party positions and policy.

So it's a little bit more like they've won the 2014 battle, but in a bigger sense they already lost the war.

It'll be interesting to see what happens after Republicans take the Senate, as I expect that they will do, by two or three or four votes. There are some fairly extreme candidates who have been successful in the Republican primaries this time around who are going to get elected to the Senate and to the House (on top of some very extreme ones who made it even in the last cycle). So I think we're going to see an intensified war inside the Republican Party between the business-oriented wing and those who are beholden either to popular Tea Party forces or to ideological funders.

How big of a role do you think the Tea Party's view of compromise plays in the GOP's internal divisions?

It's very central. A lot of what the leveraging operating that is the Tea Party has been trying to do is to keep Republicans from compromising, either with Democrats in Congress or state legislatures or with, above all, President Obama. They've been pretty successful at that.

I've seen the polls showing that Democrats are so much more interested in compromise for its own sake than are Tea Partyers. How much does that have to do with the Tea Party having its own version of recent American history, one in which the country has long been falling apart, partially because of GOP capitulation? 

Certainly that belief is out there on the far right, [and] it's fanned in the far-right media, too ... There are a lot of Tea Partyers, especially in the grass roots, who see compromise as tantamount to treason, betrayal of the nation.

But if that's the way they approach politics, then the argument some people have made that a Republican Senate will lead to more compromise, because the GOP will be expected to govern, doesn't seem likely. 

There are going to be a lot of dilemmas.

We know that John Boehner, and presumably Mitch McConnell, are going to be trying to engineer some compromises, particularly on budget issues, and they've already shown some ability to bring enough people along to avoid shutdowns and fiscal cliffs. But what are they going to do with, for example, the fact that their party has promised repeal of Obamacare?

That is s completely disingenuous promise. It is certainly something that these leaders know can't happen. But there's going to be a lot of pressure, not just to hold the symbolic vote that Obama would then veto if it made it to his desk — and I'm not sure it would — but to start going after major subsidies in the law that benefit millions of voters and benefit businesses that are very uneasy about that Tea Party strand of Republicanism.

I don't know what's going to happen there — and of course that's not even to get to the immigration issue. There are divisions within Tea Party forces on that one, but Republicans have fought an election on a maximalist, deport-them-all platform that just is not going to fly in [2016]. It's already been clear in the last two years that John Boehner cannot control his own caucus. And in the Senate, nobody can really control [anyone]. So I'm not quite sure how that's going to play out.

The Tea Party itself being divided when it comes to immigration reform — can you expand on that a bit? The conventional narrative holds that it's the businesspeople, the rich country club-style Republicans, who are for it, and then it's the Tea Party that's against it, and that's that.

You're right that on most issues where divisions are playing out inside the Republican Party, it is business groups — who want things like agricultural subsidies and transportation bills and versions of immigration reform — against the Tea Party forces that don't.

At least in the work that Vanessa Williamson and I did, we didn't treat the Tea Party ever — and I still wouldn't — as a unified organization. We all call it "the Tea Party," but really it's a field of organizations. Some of them are bottom up, grass-roots Tea Party groups, the kind of organized part of the Tea Party half of the Republican electorate. I call those "popular Tea Party forces" ... and they are completely against immigration reform that includes any path to citizenship. I would put that up there right as practically the No. 1 issue in terms of passion at the grass roots.

Of all possible issues?

Yeah, pretty much.

The sense that our country's being taken away from us, that a lot of government spending is benefiting undocumented immigrants — illegals, in their view — and that we must defend the country against this influx, that's very passionate for grass-roots Tea Partyers.

But when we talk about elite forces that have labeled themselves Tea Party supporters and are trying to kind of whip up the fears below and use those fears along with their money and their ideological pressures on the Republican officeholders, they're divided about immigration reform. You can look at the Jim DeMint crowd, and the Heritage Action Foundation, [and see] they staked out a maximalist, nativist position that is really the intellectual justification for the popular passions I described before.

But the Koch brothers network, instantiated most clearly at this point in Americans for Prosperity, they don't care what kind of people they exploit. And they're actually in favor of a version of immigration reform that might even include a kind of infinitely winding, very delayed route to some legalizations. Their guy is Paul Ryan (Paul Ryan always follows the Koch brothers' line on everything) and he's made favorable noises.

So it is a split within the elite ranks of Tea Party-aligned forces on immigration, in a way that it really isn't on healthcare reform, where they want to sabotage it. They want to stop it.

To your earlier point about the promise to repeal Obamacare, I assume you've been watching Gov. Kasich's Obamacare two-step?

[Laughs] Yeah.

Do you think his strategy of pretending the parts of Obamacare he supports — like expanding Medicaid or ending rescission — aren't really part of the bill; do you think that is going to be a sustainable way future Republicans can thread the needle?

Well, Kasich is not the first to do this. We've seen a bunch of them trying this one. Ironically, the closer you get to the actual states, the more they're talking about Medicaid expansion being OK, but it's not Obamacare. That's a little easier to pull off, at least as a public argument, because many states have their own name for Medicaid, and a lot of the voters don't understand what program we're talking about. McConnell's claim that Obamacare was just a website was hilarious. I don't think it's even standing up inside Kentucky right now. I think he's being called on it big-time.

It's just that the minute you get to a position where they can, for example, try to structure budgets, the Tea Party part of the Republican electorate — and the large number of Tea Party-oriented legislators that will be in both chambers — are going to be pushing vociferously for using 51-vote budget bills to go after the heart of Obamacare. And they're going to say, "Look, you ran on this; you made this promise." That's true. They have all made that promise. They've all misled the voters about what Obamacare is and about what they're going to do about it.

So the moment of truth is going to come fairly soon, when they're going to have to start engaging in more and more of these kinds of dances that I don't think the right wing of the Republican Party is going to accept. I don't think they're going to be fooled.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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