US House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is caught between a political rock and a hard place. If he appears too willing to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans to address the deficit, Boehner and other congressional Republicans risk being challenged in primaries by Tea Party activists. If the GOP leadership appears obstinate in generating new revenue, Republicans may lose seats in the Senate and potentially their majority in the House in the midterm elections.
It’s worth noting that Tea Party candidates who defeated incumbents or more mainstream candidates in the 2012 GOP primaries often lost in the general election. Hence, Tea Party nominees for House and Senate seats in two years are likely to weaken the Republican Party. Consider two examples: Respected and longtime Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) lost in a primary to a Tea Party candidate. It was considered a safe Republican seat but it went Democratic. Similarly, a Tea Party candidate captured the GOP nomination for Senate in Missouri, where the Democratic incumbent, Claire McCaskill, was considered vulnerable and expected to lose. Thanks to the Tea Party, she won re-election.
Ironically, there’s much talk about the Republican Party broadening its appeal to garner more support in general elections for local, state and national offices. Yet little thought has been given to rebuilding the party from within with a new generation of voters. GOP voters, especially those voting in primaries, can’t be primarily ideologues and angry white men if the Republican leadership is expected to legislate in an intelligent, responsible manner.
Policy making has always been about consensus and compromise. Tea Party activists have introduced a very dangerous element into the legislative process—“it’s my way or the highway.”
Boehner is attempting to balance the political reality of Tea Party activists while cutting a deal with President Obama. In sharp contrast, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) isn’t helping the situation. His prickly temperament, natural Tea Party leanings and open declaration shortly after President Obama’s first election ("The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president") remain problematic. Although the president has been re-elected, McConnell has given lip service to compromise and negotiation.
A strategy to modernize the Republican Party could lessen political pressure on Boehner, empowering him to act responsibly. In addition, dumping McConnell as the Senate minority leader, something only his GOP Senate colleagues can do, could help in getting a budget deal sooner.
Finally, humility would go a long way in preventing America from going over the fiscal cliff. President Obama won re-election with the popular and electoral vote. He articulated broad themes to address the budget deficit during the campaign. He’s owed a certain level of deference.
Paul Jesep is an attorney, policy analyst, and author of Lost Sense of Self & the Ethics Crisis: Learn to Live and Work Ethically