What Would Pelosi Do?

What Tea Party activists are expecting from the Republican Congress.

Jim DeMint

“This is going to sound wrong,” says Ryan Hecker. “But Obama and Pelosi—I’ve got to give them credit.”

Hecker, a Tea Party activist based in Texas, was the main drafter of the Contract From America. It was a user-driven 10-point pledge for candidates that was signed by dozens of this week’s winners in the House and Senate, and it was typical of this year’s Tea Party innovations—created at the grassroots level, adopted and promoted by every conservative group that wanted to prove its bona fides.

Now, all Hecker wants is for Republicans to live up to the contract. Doing so, he says, will require them to be like President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—and make decisions that aren’t popular. “Pelosi, especially, was very bold,” Hecker says. “She knew health care reform wasn’t popular after a certain point, but she kept pushing it because she believed in it. That’s what we need from our guys—they have to de-fund health care. They have to take it on the chin and repeal the popular parts of it, too.”

Welcome to the day after the Tea Party revolution. There’s been plenty of focus on the question of whether Tea Party upsets cost Republicans a few winnable seats. (Short version: They replaced a few electable candidates with losers, but made up for it with energy and surprise wins elsewhere.)

For their part, however, members of the Tea Party have already moved on. They’re focusing on that lengthy list of demands that Republicans signed when they were groveling for their support. These are not things that Republicans actually think they can achieve right now, but they’re mistaken if they think that gets them off the hook with the Tea Party.

And so far, at least, Republicans have convinced the Tea Party that they get it. They have sworn, for example, to defund the Affordable Care Act—something that, in effect, may just mean defunding the panel that implements it. But read between the lines of the interviews incoming House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have given so far, and you can find the first notes of compromise.

“We can and should vote on straight repeal [of the Affordable Care Act], repeatedly,” said McConnell in a speech at the Heritage Foundation on Wednesday. Moments later, he noted that conservatives would not succeed in repealing the bill, because Barack Obama was president. And in the same speech he was bearish on one of Sen. Jim DeMint’s most ballyhooed priorities, a full ban on earmarks.

In his Tuesday press conference, Boehner dropped only one line that could worry the Tea Party. Asked whether Republicans would support raising the debt ceiling, Boehner would only say that it was being discussed. A real Tea Partier would have said no, possibly with an expletive prefacing it.

“How can they raise it?” asked Robin Stublen, a Tea Party leader in Florida, where the GOP did very well Tuesday. “The debt is the first thing we talk about. Raising the debt limit is like increasing the limit on a credit card that’s already been maxed out.”

But it’s what parties in power sometimes have to do. Obama spent some of his first State of the Union pointing out that he “hated” the bailout that he voted for and implemented. He, and other Democrats, spent much of 2010 apologizing or explaining why they’d failed to deliver on what the party wanted—cap-and-trade legislation, an end to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, immigration reform. Some elements of their base were more forgiving (Hispanic voters, who carried Harry Reid to victory in Nevada) and some less (gay voters, who voted less Democratic than usual).

So Republicans need to do a combination of education and sleight-of-hand to convince Tea Partiers that, no, seriously, they are doing everything they can to dismantle the state.

“We focus too much on the cult of the presidency in politics, in general,” says Phil Kerpen, the vice president for public policy for the Tea Party behemoth Americans for Prosperity. “I view some of our job as voter education about what Congress can do and can’t do. The House originates appropriations, so we can start to make meaningful spending cuts, but some of that is going to die in the Senate.”

So according to the strategists, walking the Tea Party through its coming disappointments will require some education through futility.

“They need to pass the best pieces of legislation they can in the House, and let them get killed in the Senate,” says Kerpen. “Let the Democrats be turned into party of no. Change the whole framing—inform voters that there are substantive legislative achievements being passed on the things they voted for, but the president is saying no to them.”

The problem with this is that it’s exactly what Democrats told their base they were doing from 2007 through the slightly brighter days of the 111th Congress. Speaker Nancy Pelosi was passing everything the base wanted—420 bills originated there, then ran up against the spinning blades and killing floor of the Senate.

The Tea Party’s plan for avoiding the Democrats’ fate? Be the Tea Party. Americans for Prosperity and a series of smaller, newer groups spent two years building up online and phone lists of activists for rallying and getting out voters. They can be redeployed.

“We have everything that we had two years ago,” says Colin Hanna, president of the Tea Party affiliated conservative group Let Freedom Ring, which collaborated with Tea Party Patriots on some ad hoc get-out-the-vote efforts. “What’s new is that we have 10 to 20 million activists that we can talk to.”

This is what a lot of Tea Partiers are saying: Hecker, for example, is planning to tie Republican legislation to the somewhat generic principles of the Contract, to point activists toward what to support. But I pointed out to Hanna that this talk about the enduring grassroots sounds like what Democrats said their party had in the aftermath of the 2008 elections. Obama’s campaign became Organizing for America; the Democrats had more volunteers, for a while, than ever before.

“Well, we have one considerable advantage,” says Hanna. “Our energy is rooted in principles that are over 200 years old.”

All Republicans have to live up to, then, are expectations that they can restore the Constitution. This is a promise vague and lofty enough that it can be picked up easily by a Republican candidate for president. It’s going to be harder for a voting member of Congress to keep it.

“If nothing else gets passed but they defund health care reform, fine,” says Robin Stublen. “If it’s vetoed, submit it again. If it’s vetoed again, submit it again. If McConnell is saying that it won’t work, then they are making excuses for future failures. Don’t make excuses for failing before you start your job. Anyway, when is McConnell up for re-election again? 2012?”

Actually, it’s 2014, I tell him.

“Well, I guess I can wait that long.”

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