April 7, 2011- It remains to be seen whether a last-minute deal will be struck to avert a government shutdown, but whatever the outcome, the current budget impasse has vividly illustrated a political reality: The Republicans and their Tea Party base had it easy for the past two years — but not any longer.
In 2009 and 2010, there just wasn't much that the Tea Party movement — which ostensibly sprang up in response to TARP but quickly became synonymous with the most engaged and conservative elements of the GOP — could do to hurt the Republican Party's midterm election prospects. Democrats tried over and over to point out — correctly — that the movement was fundamentally right-wing in nature, and not the broad, grassroots coalition that its leaders claimed it was.
But this hardly mattered to swing voters. With Democrats running the White House and Congress, who really cared about the composition or ideology of the opposition? Tea Partiers could make all of the crazy noise they wanted; the 2010 midterms were always going to be a referendum on Obama and his party — and with the economy in the pits, there was only one way that referendum was ever going to turn out. Sure, the Tea Party did hurt the GOP slightly, by powering several utterly unelectable candidates to primary victories in key races, but the midterms were still a resounding GOP triumph.
But with Republicans in charge of the House now, this formula no longer works. Now it matters what the GOP does; the party is no longer just the default vehicle for any swing voter who feels frustrated with the status quo. In this context, the extreme ideological rhetoric and demands of the Tea Party base are very problematic for the GOP.