A world without the Tea Party?
Dave Weigel’s Slate column today imagines an alternate history where Rick Santelli never took to the floor of the CME Group and called for a “Chicago Tea Party” to protest the Homeowners Affordability and Stability Plan. I just find it impossible to consider in this day and age that any president could govern from the left of center without sparking a backlash from the right. It happened with Johnson, it happened with Carter, it happened with Clinton, and I think a lot of people fooled themselves into thinking that Obama’s victory in 2008 marked the “death of conservatism.”
In Weigel’s alternative universe, Democrats are able to pass their cap and trade bill. Consider me unconvinced. The major thing that would remain unchanged in this world without an entity known as the Tea Party is the defining story of the first Obama term – it’s the filibuster, stupid. Were Democrats spooked by Tea Party opposition? Sure, but that didn’t stop them from passing health care reform or financial reform. Cap and trade died, as all things seem to die these days, because it couldn’t reach 60 votes in the Senate.
There is a reasonable contention that fear of a primary challenge made some Senators (like Lindsay Graham) turn from supporters to opponents of cap and trade. But there were other factors at play, as the New York Times explored in 2010:
Why did cap and trade die? The short answer is that it was done in by the weak economy, the Wall Street meltdown, determined industry opposition and its own complexity.
The idea began as a middle-of-the-road Republican plan to unleash the market to reduce power plant pollution and spur innovation. But when lawmakers tried to apply the concept to the far more pervasive problem of carbon dioxide emissions, it ran into gale-force opposition from the oil industry, conservative groups that portrayed it as an economy-killing tax and lawmakers terrified that it would become a bonanza for Wall Street traders and Enron-style manipulators.
“Economywide cap and trade died of what amounts to natural causes in Washington,” said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, who has been promoting the idea for more than two decades. “The term itself became too polarizing and too paralyzing in the effort to win over conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans to try to do something about climate change and our oil dependency.”
Cap and trade, of course, has its origins in the Republican Party, when, under George H.W. Bush, it was implemented to combat acid rain. So did the individual mandate, supported by both the Heritage Foundation and Newt Gingrich. But you don’t have to look to the Tea Party to explain why Republicans supported both of those things in the early 1990s and oppose them now.
Barack Obama took office with huge approval ratings and a message that the Republican Party and traditional partisan politics had led the country into a disaster. Republicans made a strategical decision to force Obama, whenever possible, to try to pass his agenda through partisan channels, through the ugly process of political deal-making, to make everything a bare-knuckle fight. This helped undermine Obama’s image as a post-partisan healer of national wounds, as a new kind of politician, as a beacon of “hope” and “change.” Obama came into office promising to seek bipartisan solutions to the nation’s problems, and Republicans found that the easiest way to undermine him was to force him to pass every major piece of legislation along party lines. The Tea Party provided Republicans with a useful means through which to channel opposition to Obama, but they didn’t really need that excuse.