Watching the debt-ceiling battle on Capitol Hill—and even more the battle between the tea party young guns and older House Republicans—feels like déjà vu, or, rather, 1995, all over again.
Sixteen years ago, in the middle of the government shutdown, I found myself racing up Capitol Hill in a car filled with Republican congressmen. I had expected to hear talk of standing firm, of arguing their case for spending cuts on the House floor, of raising banners with bright, bold colors.
As I’d learned from years in the Reagan White House, confidence, clarity and consistency were essential to winning such high-stakes showdowns. Instead, these seasoned politicians were wringing their hands, snapping at any stalwart suggestion, and asking, “How did we get ourselves into this mess and how do we get out?”
Then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich takes criticism to this day for surrendering too quickly in his face-off with President Bill Clinton. Exhibit One has been the incredulous jubilation of Clinton staffers when Mr. Gingrich accepted an offer they regarded as the start of serious bargaining, not the end. But the speaker was dealing with what I saw in that car ride up the Hill—a majority that could not hold. Too many members were melting under White House and, even more, media heat. Raising the white flag reflected no more than a bow to reality. The GOP retreat could be orderly or chaotic. Mr. Gingrich prevented panic.
Today, again, the GOP caucus is divided, but with a difference. The tea party freshmen are insisting on a strong negotiating stance. They want real spending cuts without tax increases. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has become their voice in the budget talks. Reflecting uncertainty about holding non-freshmen in line, both Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker John Boehner have signaled readiness to accept cosmetic compromises.
Mr. Boehner in particular is responding to House members desperately in search of cover from fallout over the president’s threat to delay Social Security checks if the debt ceiling isn’t raised. Many are terrified of Democratic attack ads painting them as would-be destroyers of Medicare. The GOP defeat this May in the special election in New York’s 26th District shook them, which is a sign of how badly they’ve defended their positions.
After all, if Social Security tax receipts don’t cover all the checks in any month, the Social Security Trust Fund can sell its government bonds, bills and notes, as Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C), recently suggested. The holdings are enormous, and sales, even at a discount, could cover the system’s needs for years, much less the time to finish budget parlaying.
So, if the checks stop coming, it will be the president who decided to stop them. That’s not a hard message to get across.
Meanwhile, messaging on Medicare should be in Republicans’ favor, not against them. Without reform, the system is doomed—and sooner than used to be thought, thanks to the half-trillion-dollar cuts written into Mr. Obama’s health-reform legislation last year.
So, if Democrats don’t like the budget reforms proposed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, they should propose something else. There will be lots of ideas put on the table before this is done. Medicare’s only enemy is Dr. No, those who say “no” to exploring any reforms—and Dr. No is the role congressional Democrats and the administration are playing today.
Congressional tea party Republicans hold a stronger hand than anyone realizes. They speak for a large group of voters who have been swinging back and forth between the parties for more than a decade, determined the last three elections, and are likely to determine the 2012 outcome.
As early as 2005 at least one pollster—Kellyanne Conway—reported that part of the Bush 2004 vote was becoming disaffected over revulsion at federal spending. After the 2006 GOP debacle, then Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman told his troops they had got out their vote, which, as he said, then voted for the other guys.
Those same voters stayed with the other guys in 2008. But by 2010, the new Obama administration’s multiple trillion-dollar bailouts and stimulus packages had driven them back toward the GOP, with one hitch. They still didn’t trust the party and its officeholders.
The national tea party movement is just the most vocal element in this much larger wave. By and large, polling has not captured it. Pollsters follow the movements of demographic groups or the changing preferences of party loyalists and independents. They typically do not try to identify something like Bush voters of 2004 who became Obama voters in 2008 and GOP House voters in 2010. The tea party is the first broadly based American political insurgency since California’s Proposition 13 in the 1970s. Sure, its fervor will make the old guard uncomfortable, but intensity is what the GOP needs.
In short, the tea party movement is Reaganism updated. A contest has been fought over and over in Washington since Republicans embraced cutting tax rates and nondefense spending under Ronald Reagan in the early ’80s. When Republicans have united behind these priorities, they have won elections. Nervous Republicans should bear that in mind when they begin to go wobbly on something as basic as reining in spending and refusing to raise taxes. And achieving that unity has always been difficult.
Global markets must receive a clear signal that Washington has the political will to reduce spending radically. If market jitters over U.S. government debt do not convince congressional Republicans that, in the days ahead, they should hold firm for spending cuts, politics should.
Mr. Judge is managing director of the White House Writers Group and chairman of Pacific Research Institute. He was a speechwriter and special assistant to the president during the Reagan administration.