Last year, House Republicans committed themselves to an ill-advised political strategy: blackmail. They withheld their support for an extension of the nation's debt ceiling in hopes of forcing concessions from President Obama that would essentially dismantle his signature Affordable Care Act. Flawed and ultimately doomed for failure though it was, the GOP's strategy of brinkmanship found substantial support across the country, especially in the tea party's many regional hotbeds, Kern County and California's Central Valley included.
This week, however, Congress rather painlessly approved another extension of the debt ceiling, mainly because tea party-led efforts at yet another attempt to take the nation hostage gained absolutely no traction. Valley Congressmen Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, and David Valadao, R-Hanford, quietly supported the no-strings-attached debt limit increase and, rather tellingly, few if any of their constituents seem to have raised a fuss about it.
That sort of silent acquiescence could mean two things: One, the House GOP's fondness for dangling the nation's good credit over the fiscal precipice has run its course, and, two, the tea party's days as a movement of consequence may be waning.
The latter point is open to debate, of course. The tea party, that populist libertarian movement that has roiled our nation's capital for half a decade, is hardly dead. If the tea party's leaders can manage to rethink their core strategies of stall, impede and threaten, perhaps there's still life in their push for less government and what that might represent (fewer social services, less environmental regulation and the like). But this week's white flag of surrender, and especially conservatives' relative lack of complaints about it, does not bode well for the tea party's future.
Most voters seem to be satisfied that this round, there were no all-night filibusters from tea party darlings like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and his right-hand man, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah. This round, Cruz's digital grassroots Twitter campaign that paralleled his memorable rant -- #MakeDCListen -- wasn't so much a trending topic as it was a faint echo of previous congressional title fights. If last year's battle over the government shutdown was Ali vs. Frazier, this week's debt-ceiling rubber stamp was a technical knockout in favor of the Democrats. It was House Speaker John Boehner, fed up with GOP infighting fueled by a fractured foundation, who threw in the towel.
Perhaps the movement should take a hint from one-time tea party darling Michele Bachmann, who last week before the debt ceiling vote told The Washington Post, "There is a pragmatism here. You've got to know when to hold them and when to fold them. My assessment is that most of us don't think it's the time to fight."
When a small-government warrior like Bachmann -- who has nothing to lose, seeing as she won't seek reelection this year -- starts pontificating about the virtues of compromising and living to fight another day, it's probably clear that the movement is out of lockstep. Whether the tea party burns out, or holds tight to any influence it has managed to win, remains to be seen. But if tea party Republicans plan on being consequential political players for years to come, their nobody-wins strategies must evolve into more practical, realistic approaches. To their benefit, and everyone's, they seem to have learned that.