On Oct. 20, 1998, eager to avoid another government shutdown weeks before midterm elections, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich acceded to President Clinton's demands by pushing a 40-pound, 16-inch thick, 3,825-page, pork-laden spending bill through the Republican-controlled chamber.
At the time, the Associated Press reported, “Gingrich lectured his own party's conservatives, labeling them 'the perfectionist caucus' ” for demanding a tougher stand against Clinton.
It was four years earlier that Republicans had taken over control of Congress, storming into Washington on a pledge to shrink the size and scope of government. In the winter of 1995-96, the failure of Clinton and the Republican Congress to reach a budget agreement triggered government shutdowns.
But when it came to another face-off with Clinton in October 1998, Republicans blinked. The late columnist Robert Novak would describe this as the moment when “[t]he Republican Revolution truly ran out of steam.”
In 2000, Republicans nominated a candidate who portrayed himself as a “compassionate conservative,” and over the course of the presidency that followed, George W. Bush (with the help of a Republican-controlled Congress) increased spending by 60 percent, created a massive new entitlement, and expanded the federal role in education.
Is history repeating itself?
Just as in 1994, Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives in 2010 in response to overreach by a Democratic president, with a pledge to rein in the growth of government. And this Tea Party-fueled victory did result in major confrontations with President Obama, most notably the summer 2011 debt ceiling fight and fall 2013 government shutdown.
But in December, Republicans cut a deal with Senate Democrats that loosened previously negotiated budget caps -- boosting spending by $63 billion over the next two years while promising to make it up with savings down the road. House Speaker John Boehner lashed out at conservative groups who criticized the deal based on media reports, calling them “ridiculous.”
This week, Boehner, relying heavily on Democratic support, agreed to raise the debt limit with no strings attached, as demanded by Obama. The move breached his earlier principle that every dollar increase in the debt limit would have to be paired with a dollar decrease in spending. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also backed the action.
On many occasions, the Tea Party movement has overestimated its power and chosen the wrong battles. There was simply no way that Obama was ever going to agree to defund his signature legislative achievement (a longtime goal of liberalism) as the price for keeping the government open. And as Townhall's Conn Carroll pointed out, if Tea Party Republicans won't vote for any plan to raise the debt limit that's within the realm of possibility, it weakens the party's negotiating hand and forces leadership to pass a bill relying on Democratic support.
This presents a broader problem for supporters of limited government. Forces within the party who embrace a large role for government (or are at least complacent in the face of its growth) know that they’ll lose the ideological debate among Republican voters. So what they’ll try to do is to make arguments on other grounds. They’ll argue that Tea Party-supported candidates are unelectable, too irresponsible to govern or don’t have a coherent policy agenda.
That’s why, in 2014, Tea Party activists should be focused on electing strong and prudent advocates for limited government as well as rallying around a set of concrete policy goals.
When the Republican presidential candidates start announcing their candidacies and policy platforms in 2015, they should know that there are certain tangible policies that the party's small-government base expects them to support. This would be akin to how, in early 2007, liberal activists pressured all Democratic candidates to endorse similar plans for national health care.
If Tea Party activists are unable to make clear policy demands, then Republican presidential candidates are going to hire the same old GOP policy advisers who are going to dust off proposals that have been sitting in the attic since the end of the Bush era.
That’s why a more pragmatic Tea Party movement still represents the best hope for supporters of limited government who want to prevent the Republican Party from lurching back to its Bush-era embrace of big government.