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July 04, 2014 2:30 PM Who If Not Tea Folk Control GOP Agenda?

By Ed Kilgore

We’re now in the less fertile summer plain of primary elections, with no contests this month other than the unfinished business of runoffs in Alabama and North Carolina on July 15 and Georgia on July 22. So it’s a good time to look back on what Republicans in particular hath wrought, and at TPMCafe Harvard’s expert on (among other things) the Tea Party, Theda Skocpol, suggests we should be looking at Congress rather than the primary outcomes for a sense of where things stand inside the GOP.

An obsession with toting up wins and losses in primaries completely misreads how Tea Party forces work, how they have moved the governing agendas of the Republican Party ever further right and maintained a stranglehold on federal government action….
Tea Party clout in and upon Republican officials, officeholders, and candidates is actually maximized by the dynamic interplay of top-down and bottom-up forces, both pushing for absolute opposition to President Barack Obama and obstruction of Congressional action involving compromises with Democrats. Tea Party forces are neither inside nor outside, neither for nor against the Republican Party in any simple sense, because they are sets of organizations and activists seeking leverage over the choices and actions of Republican leaders and candidates.

This dynamic long preceded the inauguration of Obama and the formal launching of the Tea Party Movement, but has surely intensified since 2009.

To see that the Tea Party remains supremely effective, just look at what Congressional Republicans are doing, or not doing. Eric Cantor’s sudden defeat sealed the GOP House’s determination to block immigration reform, but that reform was already effectively dead even before that one primary election happened. Republicans have pulled away from decades-old compromises to fund transportation systems, to support agricultural subsidies along with Food Stamps, to renew the Export-Import Bank that most U.S. business interests want continued. House and Senate Republicans are spending their time mainly on obstruction and media-focused investigations, anything to challenge and humiliate President Obama. In state houses, Tea Party-pushed Republicans are mainly passing anti-abortion restrictions and blocking the expansion of Medicaid favored by hospitals and businesses.
What do primary elections have to do with such effective agenda control? Not nearly as much as the basketball finals approach to tallying total wins and losses implies. In a way, unpredictable and somewhat random victories against fairly safe Republican power-brokers are the most effective outcomes for Tea Party voters and funders. Sure, the big Tea Party funders would like to have gotten a win for Chris McDaniel, their guy in Mississippi, and they are furious that they did not. But backing up and looking at the big picture, does anyone really imagine that nervous GOP officeholders are reassured that the Tea Party is dead or “under control” following a scenario in which old timer Thad Cochran had to raise millions for what should have been a taken-for-granted primary victory, and his allies had to orchestrate an all-out voter mobilization effort that even reached out to some African American Democrats? Cochran’s near-death sends a powerful message that loudly hewing hard-right on policy issues and obstruction is the way to go. Similarly, Eric Cantor’s huge defeat is even more frightening to many Republican politicians because it happened without big-money backing from the likes of Heritage Action.

Another way to put it is to ask whether there’s any issue on which the GOP has decisively pushed back on the Tea Party agenda? Yes, there was the decision to abandon the government shutdown last year, but even the Tea Folk understood that couldn’t go on forever. Other than that, it’s hard to see where and how the alleged “Establishment” primary victories are going to make any actual difference. Look at the Common Core educational standards issue, supposedly a huge priority for the business community that has given so generously to the Establishment cause. Chamber of Commerce beneficiaries Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Joni Ernst of Iowa and Jack Kingston of Georgia have all come out against Common Core. Who’s really calling the shots in the GOP, if not the radicalized conservative movement we call the Tea Party?

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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