I did my first stint in Washington in the early 1980s, during the heyday of the Reagan administration. I came back during the Gingrich Revolution and stayed for the George W. Bush years. Each of these waves of conservative ascendency began with bold rhetoric about cutting government, rolling back regulations, and shrinking the welfare state. Each ended with the government having grown considerably bigger. Reagan, you may recall, was stymied by Tip O’Neil and sided with pragmatists in his own administration. Gingrich was outfoxed by Bill Clinton. And even with one-party control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue during six of George W. Bush’s eight years, GOP leaders chose not to dismember government, but to neglect it (FEMA) or add to it (NCLB, Medicare Part D, the Department of Homeland Security).
So it’s natural for veterans of Washington to be a little dismissive of the idea that any big changes will happen if the Republicans win big this November. The presumption is that the desire to get reelected, the resistance of K Street, the power of the minority party to create gridlock, or the sense of responsibility that comes with governing will rein in the extremism we’re hearing from GOP candidates in the primaries. Sure, Newt Gingrich has said child labor laws are stupid and inner-city public school janitors should be replaced by students, but that’s just him talking. “Newt Gingrich has a way of tossing out some far-fetched ideas, like a professor trying to provoke a hearty debate,” assured NPR’s Pam Fessler about the disgraced former speaker’s unusual idea. Sure, Michele Bachmann might actually believe her anti- Washington rhetoric, but having dropped out she’s obviously not going to get the nomination, and those who might are too much creatures of the establishment to actually attack it. “The emergence of the Washington-friendly Newt as the last alternative to a Washington-friendly Mitt is but one sign that the Tea Party’s anti-government insurgency has run its course,” wrote Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank in December. Rick Santorum’s big showing in Iowa has been accompanied by gleeful coverage of his strong defense of earmarks as a senator and speculation that if elected president he would be a “big government conservative.”
I think this is a profound misreading of where the Republican Party is right now. The failure of the GOP to shrink government the last three times it had power is precisely what motivates the anger of the Tea Party base—a force that still exhibits an amazing ability to lead the Republican Party by the nose. These are people who mainly kept quiet about the rapid growth of government during George W. Bush’s first term because their leaders told them it was necessary for national security or to achieve Karl Rove’s vision of a permanent Republican majority. But their anger grew in the second term in inverse proportion to Bush’s popularity. TARP, followed by the Obama victory, pushed them over the edge. Today, they are as contemptuous of Republican officeholders who would compromise in order to preserve their electability as they are of Democrats who warn of the dangers of radically cutting government. The Tea Party’s whole MO has been about finding ways to lash their elected officials to the mast— be it through Grover Norquist’s no-tax pledge or the threat of primary challenges.
That’s why things will be different this time if the Republicans sweep back into power, say the reporters and scholars who contributed to the cover package in this issue. David Weigel reports that the supposedly moderate Mitt Romney has signed on to a radical, Tea Party-endorsed plan to cut the budget. Harold Pollack notes that Romney has similarly promised to eliminate Obama’s health reform law via budget reconciliation—a process that would avoid a potential Senate filibuster by Democrats. If Senate Democrats insist on blocking other parts of the conservative agenda, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein predict that the odds are better than 50-50 that Mitch McConnell will go ahead and blow up the filibuster. David Roberts observes that Tea Party- friendly lawmakers are garnering support for legislation that would effectively give Congress the power to veto virtually all new federal regulations regardless of which party controls the White House. And Dahlia Lithwick explains that there are now so many conservative judges on the federal bench that one more round of appointees from a Republican president will lead to a generation of antigovernment rulings that no subsequent Democrat can undo.
The attitude of official Washington is that politicians will behave like politicians and avoid extreme actions that will lose them the next election—and if they do overreach, the other party will win and take corrective action. But what the Beltway elite doesn’t understand is that the Tea Party only needs two years in power to make the changes they have in mind—changes that would be destructive, far reaching, and in many ways tamper-proof. Even if they then lose, their antigovernment agenda will live on.
[This version differs slightly from the print edition.]