The prolonged and heated debate over whether or not to raise the debt ceiling continues to be blamed on a Tea Party that’s “too extreme.” What the controversy has really proven is that the movement should become even more extreme.
Even though the deal struck Sunday night between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner doesn’t feature any significant reform or real cuts—it will actually increase the national debt by $7 trillion—the Democrats still find it Draconian and the Republicans are still trying to find the votes to pass it, at least as of this writing. Most of the 2012 Republican presidential candidates have said they do not support the deal. Even establishment candidate Mitt Romney doesn’t like it.
Does anyone really believe that the TARP-defending Romney would’ve been denouncing a deal like this in the last election cycle? Does anyone really believe Speaker Boehner would have showed a hint of resistance if not for pressure from the Tea Party?
For decades, what has passed for “conservatism” has been little more than Republican tinkering with the status quo. But for most conservatives during any era, simply diddling with leviathan has never been enough. In defying the British Empire, the Founding Fathers were bold revolutionaries. Barry Goldwater did not want to fix big government, he wanted to dismantle it. Ronald Reagan did not look to solve problems through government, but saw government as the problem. American conservatives, however successful or unsuccessful, have always possessed a certain slash-and-burn temperament toward the state, in much the same way statists have always recklessly gouged and gored taxpaying citizens. That today’s conservatives are somehow more “extreme” is usually just a misperception, but it is also basic math: As government growth and debt reaches historic heights—so has the resistance to it.
The Daily Beast’s Peter Beinart recognizes this conservative dynamic: “The 2010 elections brought to Congress a group of Republicans theologically committed to cutting government. And they have proved more committed, or perhaps just more reckless, than anyone else in Washington.” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd makes a similar, but more negative, observation: “The maniacal Tea Party freshmen are trying to burn down the House they were elected to serve in. It turns out they wanted to come inside to get a blueprint of the historic building to sabotage it.”
Beinart and Dowd are correct that many Republican freshman now represent a new or more radical breed of conservative—but these congressional leaders are only “new” or “radical” in that they are actually conservative. Before the Tea Party, milquetoast Republicans like Romney and Boehner could get away with calling themselves conservative, with little to no disagreement from either the mainstream or right-wing media. Now both Romney and Boehner must bend over backward to try to prove that they’re somehow really conservative while constantly fearing that the GOP base isn’t buying it.
Revolution and radicalism, real or perceived, has never been incompatible with traditional conservatism, and while ends do not always justify means they can help define them. 18th century English statesman and conservative hero Edmund Burke denounced the French Revolution because it sought to change the very nature of man, but he supported the American Revolution because he believed the “rebels” simply wanted to preserve the historic nature of the colonies and its institutions. For Burke, the French Revolution was a threat to tradition and ordered liberty—but the American Revolution was conservative precisely because it sought to preserve the colonists’ political and cultural inheritance.
Today’s conservative revolution—of which the recent debt ceiling debate is but the latest skirmish—is now blamed on a rowdy band of Capitol Hill Tea Partiers who are constantly urged to moderate their principles and tone down their temperament. This is nonsense. That Dowd sees some freshmen Republicans as “maniacs” is correct only in the sense that they want to rescue a once-Constitutional republic from the dominant big government consensus beloved by liberals like Dowd. The Left, and much of the establishment Right, considers post-New Deal America sacrosanct—and find it bizarre that some Republicans now dare feel the same way about the U.S. Constitution.
Time is on the Tea Party’s side, at least for now. Writes Beinart: “Given the era of fiscal scarcity we’re now entering… the Tea Party’s dream of a government reduced to its pre-welfare state size becomes ever real (and) it was the emergence of the Tea Party as the most powerful grassroots pressure group in America that laid the groundwork for Sunday night’s deal.” Writes a frustrated Dowd: “Consider what the towel-snapping Tea Party crazies have already accomplished. They’ve changed the entire discussion. They’ve neutralized the White House. They’ve whipped their leadership into submission.”
Obama and Boehner’s recent debt “deal” may be a joke, but the Tea Party’s influence is not. Saying the Tea Party is too extreme is like saying prime rib is too delicious or Natalie Portman is too pretty. What conservatives have been doing as of late isn’t crazy—it’s working. They should keep doing more of it.