Joe Biden is in hot water for supposedly calling the Tea Party "terrorists," but his basic point — that the group of lawmakers hijacked the debt deal — is less controversial. It's something Tea Partiers seem quite proud of, in fact.
Some Tea Partiers might have been willing to vote for the deal in the end, but not until their stonewalling had dramatically altered the terms of what sort of compromise was possible. They weren't exactly happy with the final deal, which lacked, among other things, cuts to Medicare and Social Security. (Of course, any compromise at all, other than the most draconian budget reduction, would have been greeted as a failure on the far fiscal right.) The Tea Party's muscle-flexing on the debt issue will have clear political consequences, too: All of the 2012 candidates, save for Jon Huntsman, came out against the debt compromise in a clear nod to the Tea Party; the candidates might be presenting a nearly unified front, but it's one that, funnily enough, points to a deeper rift within the GOP, which is emerging from the budget fight anything but unified.
The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, wasn't quite sure what to make of the role the Tea Party had played: The editorial pages applauded the group for its heroic, last-minute willingness to bend a bit, as if positive feedback might encourage Tea Partiers to behave as better Republican citizens in the future: "Tea partiers will do more for their cause by applauding this victory and working toward the next, rather than diminishing what they've accomplished because it didn't solve every fiscal problem in one impossible swoop." It was "A Tea Party Triumph," rewarded with a gold star. Meanwhile, the paper's news division reported that the "Tea Party Sees No Triumph In Compromise." Whoops.
And yet the WSJ's disconnect actually reflects a larger one within the Tea Party: The debt deal clarified that maybe there's a wide gap between rhetoric and action in the group. After all, even while Tea Party activist groups and lawmakers got ever louder in their insistence against compromise, many congressmen flying the Tea Party banner went ahead and compromised. Not everyone who voted for them thought that was a bad idea either. Sixty-six percent of Tea Partiers in one July poll, for instance, thought their reps should compromise, and were actually remarkably varied in their responses to what sort of comprise would be acceptable — a majority were OK with a combo of cuts and (the scandal!) tax increases. From the Times:
“I wanted it over, one way or the other, because of the impact it would have had on the stock market,” said Dan Prosser, 60, a consultant and a Tea Party supporter in Texas. “I thought they were playing with my future.”
Mr. Prosser blamed Democrats and Republicans alike for stonewalling. “And these Tea Party people who say they aren’t going to vote for anything,” he said, “you have to come to some kind of resolution. It can’t just be ‘kill everything.’ It’s certainly not kill my investments, kill my stock valuations.”
It's a strategy that, say, preschool teachers and parents of small children might be familiar with: The Tea Party, by screaming louder until no one could take it any more and dramatically lowering expectations about its maturity, has succeeded in making people impressed that they compromised at all, even a little.