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Why the Tea Party Is Folding on the Debt Limit

They were never irrational, just delusional

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

“You’ve got to know when to hold them and when to fold them”—thus spake Michele Bachmann in an interview with The Washington Post last week. Bachmann is, of course, the high priestess of not knowing when to fold them. In 2012, she alleged an Islamist conspiracy at the top levels of the U.S. government. Even after the allegations swept her into a polar vortex of criticism--“[t]hese attacks have no logic, no basis, and no merit and they need to stop,” protested John McCain—Bachmann refused to back off. And yet, on the subject of a possible debt-limit showdown with the White House, an event that once loomed with Megiddo-like significance in Tea Party eschatology, Bachmann told the Post that “[t]here is a pragmatism here … most of us don’t think it’s the time to fight.”

Assuming Bachmann is right about the mood of her fellow conservatives, and the Post story suggests she is, one feels moved to ask: What the hell happened? It’s not just the debt ceiling fight, after all. In the past several weeks, the once-proudly nihilistic Republican House has managed to approve a bipartisan farm bill—a piece of legislation Tea Partiers torpedoed just six months earlier—as well as a budget deal that Paul Ryan hammered out with his Democratic Senate counterpart. And the mellowing appears to extend to Tea Partiers outside the House too. The president of Heritage Action, the lead instigator of GOP brinkmanship over the past few years, now talks charmingly of the need for an affirmative “reform agenda” so that the group can shed its obstructionist image.

In trying to explain this new circumspection, commentators have naturally seized on the fiasco that was last fall’s shutdown, which is useful as far as it goes. But, at the time, it was hardly obvious that the shutdown would have a chastening effect. The real question is why it had such an effect. Only that can tell us how Democrats should respond.

Before we get to that, however, it’s worth reviewing what the shutdown did not accomplish. It emphatically did not cure Tea Partiers of their darkest fantasies. They still yearn for a violent confrontation with the president, or at least any chance to humble him. That explains why so many right-wingers are demanding something—anything—in exchange for raising the debt limit, even if they realize they have no leverage to extract a meaningful concession. At its most farcical, the Republicans’ debt-ceiling strategery has devolved into a search for demands that are likely to be satisfied anyway—like the so-called Medicare doc fix—so they can claim they forced Obama to give ground. (My own suggestion: Refuse to raise the debt ceiling unless Obama promises to join Michelle and the kids for dinner every night that he’s in town—an honest-to-goodness pro-family ritual, albeit one he’s been practicing for over five years.)

In fact, the shutdown didn’t change much of anything about the Tea Partiers themselves. It just gave us some insight into what governs their behavior. To borrow the reigning metaphor of this discussion, it’s not that the shutdown broke the fever. It’s just that we now can now say whether the illness is viral or bacterial.

By which I mean: Prior to the shutdown, it wasn’t clear whether Bachmann et al were irrational (that is, so zealously attached to their ideological goals that they ignored conventional political incentives, like widespread public disapproval), or delusional (meaning they were perfectly capable of responding to political incentives in theory; they just assumed the masses supported them).

The shutdown demonstrated that the Tea Partiers are, for the most part, delusional rather than irrational: They can be forced to reconsider a particular tactic if you persuade them it’s politically catastrophic. It just requires an epic level of public anger to break through their epistemically-stunted consciousness. The Tea Partiers had basically believed that the country backed their monomaniacal fixation on repealing Obamacare, and their jihadi plan for getting it done. The shutdown, or at least the endless shutdown-inspired hand-wringing on Fox News, managed to disabuse even them of this belief.

This may seem like an academic point, but the upshot is pretty important. Amid the recent thaw, you can sense the impulse to give bipartisan deal-making another shot. There is occasional talk of “new momentum.” A deal on immigration reform suddenly looks possible (though a bit less so this week than early last week). In certain quarters, it’s becoming safe to rhapsodize about tax reform or fiscal grand bargains again. It would shock no one if back-channel feelers were being sent. 

But the lesson of the shutdown is that engagement and accommodation is worse than useless—it’s counterproductive. When you’re dealing with delusional people, any gesture in their direction will only be interpreted as confirmation that their delusions are true. When Obama agreed to pare tens of billions from his 2011 spending request shortly after the GOP won control of Congress, House Republicans didn’t see it as a sign of good faith, as the White House believed they would. (David Plouffe: “The trust was increased.”) They interpreted it as an admission by the president that the public supported their radical agenda. It’s only through confrontation—doing away with negotiations and inciting voters to communicate which side they support—that you have any chance of breaking through. Going forward, that means there’s no probably difference-splitting approach to, say, getting an immigration bill through the House. If you want immigration reform, let Republicans reject the reasonable-sounding bill that passed the Senate, then force them to pay a brutal price for their unpopular position in 2016.

For much of the past three years, Democrats have indulged on one of two fallacies about the House Republicans: That you can deal with them if you just move far enough in their direction (the White House circa 2011); or that you can’t deal with them at all because they’re fundamentally off their rockers (many progressives). But it turns out you can deal with them, or at least impose your will on them. You just have to understand the Tea Party psychology that the shutdown made transparent.

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor of The New Republic. Follow @noamscheiber