If Tea Party Republicans are behaving like out-of-control children, some blame goes to the unreliable "adults" who spent the last 13 years frittering away their parental credibility.
"Those who are sympathetic to the Tea Party," my colleague Phil Klein wrote in last week's Washington Examiner, "are conflating tactical disagreements with ideological disagreements."
Klein is right. On the current budget debate, some conservative activists and journalists, and even Tea Party lawmakers, have set a litmus test: You either support their gambit to defund Obamacare or you're not a real conservative. First-term Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, put it bluntly on the Senate floor: "Defund it or own it. If you fund it, you're for it."
But Congress isn’t going to defund Obamacare. That would require a Democratic Senate passing a defunding bill, and then the president — who, after all, put the “Obama” in “Obamacare” — signing it. This isn’t going to happen.
The defunders say that if they can't get the whole cake, maybe they can get a slice. Facing an Obamacare defunding or a government shutdown, Democrats and the White House might negotiate down to a delay of the individual mandate, they say. Or maybe Dems will cave and preserve sequester-driven budget cuts in hopes of killing this whole “defund” thing.
Slashing or delaying pieces of Obamacare are realistic conservative goals, as is saving the sequester. Is threatening a government shutdown over defunding Obamacare the best way to get there, or is there a more effective approach?
This is a difference of tactics. Still, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, carrying the flag for defunding, attacks those who don't follow his lead. “The American people are not surprised that politicians in Washington — of both parties — are afraid to take a stand.”
Why do disagreements over tactics bring one's principles into doubt? Maybe the conservative bomb-throwers don't have as refined a sense of strategery as the party leadership does. But also, the grassroots simply don't trust the Establishment on tactics — because the Establishment has frittered away that trust.
The Bush era saw the GOP Establishment repeatedly saying “trust us,” and “just because we have different tactics doesn’t mean we don’t share your principles.” And often things turned out well for the Establishment, but not for the conservatives.
Take the 2003 bill expanding Medicare to cover prescription drugs. Conservatives didn't like creating a new entitlement. Republican leaders promised that the GOP would be better off passing it — otherwise Democrats would take over government and pass an even bigger expansion of Medicare. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich warned GOP members, “Don't go home without it.”
These arguments convinced enough conservative members to pass it. Then House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., who helped write the bill, quit Congress mid-term to become a $2-million-a-year lobbyist for the newly-subsidized drug industry. From that perch, Tauzin later helped write and pass Obamacare — and fund the re-election of Democrats who voted for it.
Gingrich, though Republican members didn't know it at the time, was also in the pay of the drug industry while pushing its passage.
Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader who ushered the Medicare expansion through, soon started making big bucks at a firm investing in the drug industry — which he had helped subsidize.
So the leaders benefited personally, but did the broader GOP? There’s no way to prove it either way, but Bush did much worse in 2004 among voters primarily concerned about health care than he had done in 2000, falling from 33 percent of those voters to 23 percent.
Similarly, the Republican rank and file loyally followed Bush on No Child Left Behind in 2001. Bush, over his first term, fell among voters who put education first from 44 percent in 2000 to 26 percent in 2004. And Democrats soon used No Child Left Behind to attack Republicans for not sufficiently funding education.
"Don't undermine the White House" was the constant refrain from the GOP leadership. Conservatives largely obeyed, and soon ended up with ballooning spending, a crumbling occupation of Iraq, a Harriet Miers Supreme Court nomination and then a Democratic tidal wave in 2006 and 2008.
Fast forward to 2013: GOP leaders argued that Republicans had to accept a gun control measure mandating stricter background checks. Tea Party back-benchers fought back, despite warnings from on high. The Tea Partiers won, and there’s no evidence of a political cost to Republicans for this.
House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, in my view, are conservatives who, as a rule, seek the most conservative outcome possible. These leaders are frustrated that younger conservatives don't tolerate tactical differences.
But if some conservatives don’t want to do as they are told, it’s because in the past, the leadership had led the GOP astray.
Timothy P. Carney, the Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Sunday and Wednesday on washingtonexaminer.com.