Building a Real Reform Mandate

Michael A. Needham

Winter 2015

The last four years in Washington have been defined by intense friction between the Tea Party grassroots and the so-called Republican establishment. From the fiscal cliff to the debate over defunding Obamacare to high-tension votes on the farm bill and transportation reauthorization, Republican leaders in Congress and the Tea Party have rarely seemed to be on the same page and have often fought openly in full view of the public.

To many reform-minded observers eager to help the Republican Party build a mandate for a conservative governing agenda, this discord appears pointless and counterproductive, undermining Republican efforts to project the steadiness needed to govern while accomplishing little to improve the likelihood of future conservative policy victories. The hostility inherent in such debates is exacerbated by a sense held by many of the well-intentioned participants that the motives of the Tea Party have been mysterious at best and nihilistic at worst. They worry that the Tea Party has no strategic or tactical vision. They see the Tea Party as an obstacle to reform rather than a partner.

From the perspective of the conservative grassroots and affiliated organizations, however, the friction of the last several years has been anything but pointless. It is a result of deep and irreconcilable disagreements between activist reformers and the Washington establishment over both the means conservatives should employ and the ends they should pursue. At its core, it is a dispute over how much the center-right should aim to disrupt the political status quo. Those eager to shake up the stale agenda of the Republican Party do their cause no service by standing on the sidelines or opposing the Tea Party's efforts; in this fight, reformers of all stripes must hope the Tea Party wins.

As the country turns its attention to the 2016 campaign, the 114th Congress cannot afford to squander the opportunity to present the country with a governing vision of its own. If the party hopes to win a mandate in 2017, it must begin the new Congress with bold congressional action. Given its influence in Congress, the Tea Party is sure to shape the nature of such action. The cause of reform therefore would be well served by a candid conversation regarding what it is that the Tea Party is aiming to accomplish — and how.


In 2009, the Republican Party was an institution adrift. Years of overspending by a Republican Congress that had used appropriations boondoggles to paste together legislative achievements had undermined the party's claims to fiscal restraint. The toll the economic crisis took on working Americans' savings and jobs had undermined the GOP's claims that low taxes would enable widespread economic prosperity. Worst of all, the bank bailouts of 2008 had undermined Republicans' defense of the fundamental fairness of American capitalism.

Americans increasingly came to view the Republican Party as concerned primarily with the protection of its big-business donor base, even as the systems and policies it championed appeared to have wreaked havoc on the country. The left, with a charismatic champion in Barack Obama, seized the opportunity to convince many Americans of the need for an activist agenda to guarantee prosperity, fairness, and responsible governance. Its success was unsurprising given the vulnerabilities of Bush-era conservatism.

The Republican establishment — congressional leadership, party officials, and the various consultants involved in running campaigns — was reluctant to acknowledge these fundamental weaknesses. But some conservative intellectuals caught on even before the Obama wave hit.

These concerns were given voice in 2008, when Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam published Grand New Party, warning of the challenges facing 21st-century conservatism. The modern Republican agenda, they observed, had little resonance with the so-called "Sam's Club voter" — the non-college-educated, blue-collar worker whose shifting allegiances between New Deal Democrats and the Republican "silent majority" had defined the coalition politics of right and left through the 20th century. As economic dislocation and social decay undermined workers' sense of security and prospects for upward mobility, Douthat and Salam observed, "Republicans often seem disinterested in [their] plight entirely, even when working-class votes are putting them over the top every November." In the Bush years, the GOP had been guilty of "confusing being pro-market with being pro-business" and "shrinking from the admittedly difficult task of reforming the welfare state so that it serves the interests of the working class rather than the affluent." The right's message lacked resonance, and the left was poised to fill the void for the foreseeable future.

Amid the election of Barack Obama and Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, this prediction seemed prescient. But something happened along the way: The Democratic Party, with its commanding control of the two elected branches, overreached, and the Sam's Club voter struck back.

As Congress and the president embarked on a massive expansion of the role of government in health care, finance, and energy production, along with a spending binge the likes of which the nation had never seen, the grassroots movement known as the Tea Party rose up in angry response. Local gatherings protesting government overreach developed quickly into massive rallies decorated with Gadsden flags. Democratic members of Congress found themselves ambushed at town halls by angry protesters. President Obama's public approval plummeted, and Massachusetts elected a Republican to the Senate seat formerly held by Ted Kennedy. Democrats found themselves on track for a historic electoral catastrophe two years after their greatest triumph in generations.

But the grassroots movement was not angry only over the excesses of the left; it was animated equally by frustration over some of the very mistakes of the Bush-era right that intellectuals like Douthat and Salam had highlighted. Even as they led the public opposition to the Pelosi-Reid agenda, Tea Party activists held Republicans to account for the failures of the Bush years — the overspending, the federal overreach, and the favoritism for the financial class embodied in policies like the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

The Republican Party establishment conveniently missed this part of the message. The party's nominee in 2012 ran on a traditional establishment agenda, and in the wake of his defeat, Republican leaders released an "autopsy report" calling for a truce on social issues, an amnesty-based immigration overhaul, and a messaging-based approach to reform that was oriented toward casting the party in a more welcoming light without any fundamental shift in its agenda for working Americans.

In the face of an urgent need for a refreshed platform, the party proposed changes that reflected the priorities of the business elite, neglecting the emphasis on the concerns of Sam's Club America and the Republican base that had so clearly resonated in 2010.


Antagonism between establishment Republicans and movement conservatism is nothing new, of course. It has defined the party's internal politics for many decades.

The Republican establishment recruited General Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 out of fear that the party would nominate Robert Taft, later a critic of the Eisenhower administration for containing "so many big businessmen in the cabinet." Nelson Rockefeller was booed at Barry Goldwater's nominating convention in 1964 for declaring Goldwater's brand of conservatism an "extremist threat...feed[ing] on fear, hate, and terror." The grassroots saw fit to deliver the ultimate insult to a sitting president — a serious primary challenge — in 1976, and the Reagan victory that followed four years later only planted the seeds for more clashes in subsequent decades.

What distinguishes today's grassroots conservatives from those of earlier generations is their unprecedented capacity to organize in the absence of party infrastructure. Boston University's Angelo Codevilla observes in a seminal essay on the Tea Party, "It is aided by the internet, which makes it possible to spread ideas to which the educational Establishment gives short shrift and which the ruling class media shun. In short, the internet helps undermine the ruling class's near-homogenization of American intellectual life, its closing of the American mind." But the web and social media enable even more than that. They facilitate communication between would-be activists who in previous decades would have thought themselves lone champions of an obscure cause. The internet also gives activists new means by which to communicate their frustration to their members of Congress during governing season and new ways to campaign during election season.

Perhaps most importantly, it gives activists more access than ever before to the details of the backroom deals their representatives engineer. It's no wonder, then, that the Tea Party is angrier than its forebears. Articulating the id of the populist right's reaction against bipartisan political elites, Codevilla writes, "Our ruling class's agenda is power for itself. While it stakes its claim through intellectual-moral pretense, it holds power by one of the oldest and most prosaic of means: patronage and promises thereof."

But Washington is a complicated place, and not all who play for the establishment team seek to hoard power for its own sake. Many members of Congress and like-minded staffers come to Washington with high hopes of changing the system from within. They soon realize, however, just how inconsequential any one low-ranking member of Congress really is, and, with the best of intentions, they choose to gain influence with leadership or on their committees rather than to rock the boat. They convince themselves that power, once amassed, can be capitalized at a later date. And this dynamic is exacerbated by those who profit off the system for their own ends, cheerfully marching through the revolving door between elected office and lobbying.

Others retain sound conservative instincts even after long careers in Washington but lack the vision to recognize the necessity of bold reforms as a central component of the Republican Party's platform. They see the stale Republican agenda of pro-business policy as sufficient both politically and substantively, not because they are unconservative but because they have not adequately thought through the nature of the challenges facing 21st-century America. The need for fresher ideas than marginal tax-rate reductions and platitudes about regulation and the size of government is not clear to them, due not to poor motives but to a lack of reflection.

Meanwhile, the intellectual proponents of a new brand of Republican economic populism who have come to be called "reform conservatives" share common cause with the Tea Party in seeking to disrupt the inclination to either play the system for gain or think timidly about the scale of reform necessary to reboot the center-right. As Ramesh Ponnuru has noted, "Tea partiers do not generally make the assumption that everything in the [Republican] party's approach is fine except for one or two issues, and so reform conservatism does not have to push back against that complacency to work alongside them. And the tea partiers tend — as evidenced by their agitation against Republican support for crony capitalism — to be open to the idea that the party's approach to economic issues should change."

But many of the participants in the reform debate — conservative intellectuals, Capitol Hill staffers, members of Congress — are nonetheless deeply skeptical of the role the Tea Party has played since its emergence in 2010. These reformers value prudence, and they believe the Tea Party to be at times unserious on policy and careless in its methods. They are open in theory to a disruptive conservative insurgency that will serve to modernize the Republican Party's agenda, but they must be convinced both that the Tea Party has some vision and that it has a plausible plan to act on it.

What then should we make of their concerns that, having played an important initial role in catalyzing a debate about the future of conservatism, the Tea Party today serves not as a vehicle for but as an obstacle to the development of a reform agenda? Does the Tea Party have a vision of its own to offer the country and a plan for implementing it, or is its contribution fundamentally unconstructive for the reform project?


Given the political reality of divided government and the Obama administration's strong influence over the national agenda, much of the Tea Party's policy focus since 2010 has necessarily been negative. In combination with the Tea Party's willingness to pick fights with Republican leadership, this oppositional emphasis has convinced many that the Tea Party is a movement with no positive vision for conservative governance.

Such a movement, long on rhetoric and short on ambitious policy, would, critics rightly argue, be unworthy to hold the reins of power. As Henry Olsen has observed in these pages, "Polls do show that overwhelming majorities of Americans now think the country is going in the wrong direction, are unhappy with Congress and its leaders, and want to elect new representatives; when Tea Partiers echo this discontent, they offer hope to millions of voters who want their worries taken seriously. But today's populists should not imagine that an echo is all these voters want."

Yet, for all its emphasis on the negative, the Tea Party has offered more than a mere echo of discontent in the Obama years. Since 2010, Tea Party support has been crucial to the success of the party's boldest policy reformers, like Paul Ryan, in building consensus around controversial ideas like Medicare premium support. Moreover, the Tea Party's electoral recruits, like Mike Lee and Marco Rubio, have been among the most innovative policy entrepreneurs among congressional Republicans.

Conservative activists' basic skepticism of incumbency is not a mere instinct; it is a considered preference based on the observation that the kind of public-spiritedness and entrepreneurialism needed to achieve real reform tends more often than not to be found not in career politicians but in political upstarts willing to challenge longstanding pecking orders. That the Tea Party's grassroots activists would prefer to see more new blood at the expense of longtime officeholders should be no surprise.

Further, the Tea Party has done more than merely clear out the deadwood of incumbency and introduce fresh faces who bring new ideas and provide more senior conservative leaders with additional votes for reform proposals. It has, over time, proposed a broad new plank for the conservative agenda: a commitment to combating the government favoritism and special-interest politics that too often stifle ideas for conservative reform.

Though some have called this flavor of conservatism "libertarian populism," it is not libertarianism at all; rather, it is a proper conservatism. It is a commitment to dynamic capitalism rather than to the particular individuals and institutions that have already achieved success in our economy. The Tea Party is pro-market, not pro-business, and its primary contribution to the Republican platform has been a recognition of the distinction between the two concepts — a distinction that its donors would prefer to obscure.

This is the starkest contrast between the grassroots and the party establishment, and it is best exemplified by the divide over reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, criticized in 2008 as "little more than a fund for corporate welfare" by then-senator Barack Obama. The status of the bank, which serves primarily to finance clients of Boeing, was a consistent point of dispute in the 113th Congress between the consultant class and conservatives like House Financial Services Committee chairman Jeb Hensarling, who urged House leadership last year, without success, to allow the bank to expire. That fight recalled similar debates on issues like agricultural subsidies and the role of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the housing market, where moneyed interest groups doggedly lobbied Congressional leadership to preserve pro-business policies in direct conflict with conservative principles. Such conflicts place conservatives directly at odds with the very business constituencies that the Republican establishment views as its financial base, making even the smallest reforms a heavy lift in the Republican conference.

Given the enormous challenges facing the nation, why bother with "small" issues like corporate welfare and concomitant insider politics? Why pick these fights with the donor base?

As the Tea Party sees it, if conservatives can't stand up for sound policy on "easy" fights like these — despite their relative insignificance compared to issues like entitlement reform — the Republican Party is unlikely to have the fortitude to take on the greatest challenges the country faces. More importantly, any party that contemplates cutting back welfare for needy individuals and families but embraces corporate welfare for the powerful lacks the moral authority to urge sacrifice of any sort.

But most of all, the Tea Party sees the insider game in Washington not as peripheral to the persistence of the most pressing challenges of the day but rather as a proximate cause for inaction by the political class — Republicans and Democrats alike — on the big issues. As Douthat observes, the recent obsessions of the donor class have eaten up the oxygen that otherwise might have been devoted to more consequential reform:

D.C. gridlock has given the political class an excuse to ignore the country's most pressing problem — a lack of decent jobs at decent wages, with a deeper social crisis at work underneath — and pursue its own pet causes instead.

After all, gun control, immigration reform and climate change aren't just random targets of opportunity. They're pillars of Acela Corridor ideology, core elements of Bloombergism, places where Obama-era liberalism overlaps with the views of Davos-goers and the Wall Street 1 percent. If you move in those circles, the political circumstances don't necessarily matter: these ideas always look like uncontroversial common sense.

Even this is an understatement. The influence of the Acela Corridor crowd doesn't merely distract from the most important questions; it actively stifles the resolution of those questions. Repealing and replacing Obamacare will be impossible without exploding the alliance between politicians and the insurance lobby, which was greatly solidified by the 2010 law. Real housing-finance reform will immediately ignite the fierce opposition of the powerful (and deep-pocketed) realtor lobby. A higher-education revolution, kick-started by reforms to government's role in student loans and the accreditation process, will draw a firestorm not just from the national higher-education associations but from the countless local college presidents who hold so much sway in every congressional district. And of course, as has become cliché to acknowledge, real tax reform would upset the apple cart of the hundreds of tax preferences that favor incumbent players in almost every industry imaginable.

On issue after issue, flawed policy either results from or results in the dominance of cartelized power structures that would necessarily collapse under conservative reforms. For risk-averse politicians dependent on lobbyist-sponsored fundraisers, the political fallout from displeasing the current beneficiaries of these systems is simply too great a danger, and the Republican Party has therefore long been complacent about pursuing disruptive ideas. Piecemeal reforms are always more palatable. That is why, from the Tea Party populists' perspective, driving a wedge between the Wall Street plutocrats and the Republican establishment on the "smaller" issues isn't a distraction from the work of reform in other areas; it is a necessary precondition.

This insight, more than any of the particular policy proposals pursued by Tea Party House and Senate members, is the movement's greatest contribution to the project of constructing a reform agenda, and it informs the Tea Party's tactical approach to achieving policy victories. It is that tactical approach, of course, that has engendered the fiercest debates between the Tea Party and other reformers in the conservative movement.


Perhaps the most distinctive element of the Tea Party's tactical vision is the willingness of Tea Party members of Congress to engage in conflict — whether it be over substance or procedure — even when short-term success appears improbable or impossible. Conflict, the Tea Party believes, may well be the best way for a political party out of power to draw attention to important policy debates — and it may be the only way to force members of Congress to begin the hard work of embracing controversial reform proposals. Without the bully pulpit of the presidency, few alternatives offer similar potential. In the words of Newt Gingrich, "You have to give the press confrontations. When you give them confrontations, you get attention; when you get attention, you can educate."

There are, of course, limits on the leverage any political party operating from a minority position has to exact its will. But if pressed, few non-Tea Party conservatives would deny, at least in the abstract, that conflict can be channeled toward constructive ends, even (and perhaps especially) for a party out of power unable to achieve its goals in the short term. The House Republican conference's multiple votes in favor of budgets proposing massive structural reforms of Medicare are the prototypical example of the value of this approach.

In passing these budgets, the House achieved nothing of substance on the underlying issue. Medicare remains unreformed. Yet the repeated votes have helped lay the groundwork for eventual victory. Members have learned over the course of several election cycles how to articulate a complicated and controversial view on a sensitive topic. The public has become desensitized to the issue. The party's platform has evolved to such a degree that it is almost inconceivable that any plausible presidential candidate in 2016 will run away from Medicare reform. Those few members with the temerity to stand in the way of the reformers — perhaps most notably failed Senate candidate Denny Rehberg of Montana — have gone by the wayside.

That House Republicans and their leadership were willing to take such a step on Medicare is enormously commendable. Now that Republicans have already absorbed the risk of backlash from supporting the reform, those officials are much less likely to back down from the position once given the opportunity to make reform a reality.

The problem is that this approach — the willingness to spell out bold conservative ideas in detail, educate the public, and lock in skeptical members — has been the exception rather than the rule in recent years. Even the Ryan Medicare plan was a heavy lift in the Republican conference; leadership had approached reform with skepticism for years, and it was finally made possible only by the enormous pressure generated by the arrival of the freshman Tea Party class in 2011, who insisted on passing a budget that would rein in the deficit.

The general perspective of the establishment is that, with a few exceptions, it is "brinksmanship" to force conflicts over conservative policy, especially on must-pass legislation — reauthorizations, continuing resolutions, the debt ceiling — when victory in the short term is unlikely. A political party cannot govern while it is out of power, the establishment argues.

The disconnect between this perspective and the Tea Party's has formed a fault line, causing numerous, highly charged political dustups. Foremost among these fights was the effort to defund Obamacare in fall 2013 and the subsequent government shutdown. But other fights — for instance, the attempt to reform the farm bill's massive agricultural subsidies or to transform the federal transportation system rather than bail out the Highway Trust Fund — have followed in the same pattern: The Tea Party has forced establishment Republicans into public debates over proposals unlikely to advance so long as President Obama is in the White House, and the end result has been the kind of temporary yet highly visible inaction that feeds perfectly into a media narrative of Republican obstructionism.

But inaction is not a necessary consequence of such internal divisions. Last year's debate over the border supplemental appropriation, for example, represented Tea Party-instigated conflict at its most constructive. From the start of the discussion about how best to address the border crisis before Congress's summer recess, House conservatives insisted that whatever border-security provisions Congress considered would be woefully inadequate unless passed in conjunction with language ending the White House's unilateral Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy that had drawn so many young migrants on the dangerous journey from Central America to the United States. Pundits warned of the consequences over a fight on a border supplemental, and as the week-long debate proceeded with no clear end in sight, the media asserted that Republicans would pay a price for leaving Washington without addressing the issue.

That's not what happened. Eventually, because conservatives dug in their heels, the Republican leadership relented, asking conservative members to deliver votes for a border package in exchange for a vote on the White House amnesty policies. They didn't disappoint. Republican members left Washington last August having overwhelmingly passed a border bill and a repeal of the executive amnesty. The Senate left town having failed to enact any legislation. Had that outcome been reached a bit sooner, House Republicans might have had a favorable news cycle on their hands.

The border supplemental fight over DACA, like the Tea Party's efforts on the highway trust fund, the farm bill, and the effort to defund Obamacare, was not successful on its own terms. Just as our federal government still plays a major role in local transportation infrastructure financing, doles out massive subsidies to agribusiness, and administers and finances Obamacare, the president's DACA program remains intact despite the summer immigration flare-up.

But to judge the worthiness of these fights only by the immediate outcomes achieved is to misunderstand their real purpose and consequences. Even the messiest of such conflicts can produce strategic dividends that too often go unrecognized by more risk-averse reformers who are largely focused on policy victories achievable in the near-term. Because the farm bill required enormous political capital to pass, Congress is far more likely to consider reforms in the next debate several years from now. The same is true of infrastructure reform. Because House Republicans challenged their leadership to address DACA this past summer, the party has been far better positioned to address the dangers of similar administrative amnesty schemes such as the proposal unveiled by the White House after the November elections. And on the most controversial of all these fights — the effort to defund Obamacare — the failure to achieve immediate success obscured the important long-term victory secured in the process: that the Tea Party successfully forced Republican office-holders to recommit to repeal in the post-2012 landscape and forced the media to treat the law's status as a live issue rather than a settled policy matter. Obamacare opponents are far better positioned to achieve their goals as a result.

Such goals may seem inconsequential to those inclined to believe that the Republican establishment's risk-averse instincts mask a legitimate commitment to attaining conservative policy achievements given the right political climate. The Tea Party, with plenty of history on its side, does not share that trust. Forcing members of Congress to engage publicly in debates critical to the nation teaches them how to discuss the issues, locks politicians into the right positions, and builds the buy-in necessary for reform. These are crucial intermediate steps toward the long-term goal of legislating that are often ignored by those who give the establishment the benefit of the doubt.


Equally important to the Tea Party's inclination to march toward conflict is its attitude toward compromise, particularly involving issues of arithmetic like spending and taxes. Simply put, the Tea Party believes in compromise, but it distinguishes between deal-making that serves conservative ends and concessions that do harm to the project of restraining the government excesses the left seeks to preserve.

Take, for example, the Ryan-Murray budget agreement reached at the end of 2013. Many reformers, hoping to avoid the budget sequesters they felt were both unwise and unsustainable, supported the deal, which increased both taxes and spending within the period of the two-year agreement. They argued, perhaps correctly, that if the deal were not struck, some moderate Republicans would work with Nancy Pelosi on a deal to even further increase both taxes and spending. These arguments assumed such eagerness within the ranks of the Republican conference to make bad deals with Democrats to be a permanent condition. The Tea Party, by contrast, tends to believe that such weakness undermines policy victories time and time again — and must be exposed clearly and publicly if spines are ever to stiffen.

Rejecting compromises that merely amount to slower expansions of the role of the state than the Democratic Party would prefer is not the same as a rejection of compromise of any sort. A more accurate view is that the Tea Party recognizes that, given the fundamental clash between the principles of the left and right, some so-called compromises, particularly on fiscal policy, are hardly compromises at all. As Yuval Levin has noted of our fiscal debates, "Democrats want more revenue so that the entitlement system doesn't have to be reformed, while Republicans want to reform the entitlement system so that the government doesn't have to take up more of the economy. This means that doing a good deal of each at the same time would not give both parties what they want — it would give both parties what they are trying to avoid."

Congressional leaders, whose bias is generally in favor of legislative action over inaction, are often frustrated by this attitude. But even given that bias, from the perspective of leadership, the existence of persistent, outside conservative pressure beyond its control is actually of enormous value beacuse it limits its range of action in negotiations to a more rightward set of policy outcomes. This is the story of the 2011 Budget Control Act — a deal that conservative activists and groups like Heritage Action criticized at the time for falling far short of expectations. That criticism, along with the pressure on leadership to achieve spending cuts without tax increases throughout the entire debt-ceiling negotiation process that summer, made possible a policy outcome that would have been unimaginable in a backroom negotiation with the Obama White House (disappointing even as that outcome may have been in the final analysis).

Managed with care, the need to placate outside constituencies offers House speaker John Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell leverage they would otherwise lack. Even when they don't realize it, they use this leverage to achieve better outcomes than would otherwise be possible given their inclination toward deal-making. Though it leaves neither side happy, this dynamic has been good for advancing conservative policy.


Implicit in both the aversion to compromise and the willingness to engage in conflict is a general skepticism of establishment appeals to cautious incrementalism.

Critics view this inclination as unconservative at its core. Philip Wallach and Justus Myers observed in these pages that the failure to aim for incremental progress was fundamental to the left's misguided and unpopular approach to overhauling the health-care system. "Doing the work required to build a broader coalition would have put lawmakers less at the mercy of any one group, allowing them to create something cleaner and simpler as well as carving out the political space for continuous incremental improvement after the initial reform. This is a much-neglected virtue of hashing out politically acceptable compromises through deliberative politics, rather than waiting for opportunities to unilaterally impose a landmark change, and it has much to do with how precarious the future of Obamacare remains."

Republican opposition to the left's maximalism, Wallach and Myers fear, is prone to the very same problems. To the Tea Party, "willingness to compromise is taken as a sign of moral impurity, making proposals to improve government incrementally seem beside the point or worse." Conservatives forget at their own peril that "incrementalism forestalls the need for disruptive changes under crisis conditions — conditions that almost never make for outcomes friendly to liberty."

This critique makes a reasonable enough general point, but its applicability to the conduct of the Tea Party is more limited than the movement's critics would allow. Few in the grassroots are against incrementalism per se. But incremental progress ought to be guided by a coherent vision of the direction such progress should take. Too often, the Tea Party believes, the Republican Party lacks such vision, and its appeals to caution mask resignation to inaction or defeat on issue after issue. Incrementalism must foster incremental progress; incremental regress should be resisted.

On this front, history speaks for itself. Federal spending is on track to explode from the pre-Obama average of 20% of gross domestic product to over 30% about two decades from now. The means-tested welfare system, on autopilot thanks to the nature of mandatory spending, cost taxpayers $3.7 trillion in the first Obama term, and that cost will almost double over the course of a decade. Increasingly, fundamental legislative functions have been delegated to regulatory agencies, which use their power over vast realms of economic life to pursue policy objectives never dreamed of by the authors of their grants of authority. Meanwhile, Republicans too often merely expand the scope of the problem with new unfunded entitlements, while the great policy achievements of conservatives, like the tax reforms of the 1980s, prove only temporary.

In our current political context — with a government whose baseline budgets increase by the month, whose judges view laws as noncommittal propositions rather than fixed rules, whose bureaucracy is now in almost every sense aimed at undermining the limitations planted in its founding documents — the left simply wins by default. With the passage of Obamacare and Dodd-Frank, progressives have little need to achieve legislative victories in order to attain some key priorities. President Obama, more than anyone, recognizes the significance of these victories and their contribution to the left's momentum; he has declared that his first-term accomplishments amount to more than those of "any president — with the possible exceptions of Johnson, F.D.R., and Lincoln." The pillars of our economy now all rest on foundations favorable to progressive change, and the president recognizes correctly that executive action can suffice in place of a legislative agenda for the remainder of his presidency — even, as evidenced by his recent action on immigration, absent statutory authority.

The right's failure to achieve concrete, lasting victories is not for lack of effort, of course. Ronald Reagan and the conservative movement he helped build decades ago aimed to do more than merely slow the progress of the left. They sought to transform government permanently and obtain from the public a genuine mandate for leadership. But they never had opportunities amid divided government to build small successes into permanent victories. With each year that passes, the fundamental corrections they failed to achieve become ever more necessary, and increasing numbers of Americans sense that the familiar deliberative politics of Washington may not be able to deliver results soon enough.

The single most encouraging counterexample to this history of failed efforts at slow progress through compromise and consolidation of political capital is the welfare reform of the mid-1990s. But that reform was only achieved by dragging a reluctant president to the negotiating table through the very sort of supposed intransigence now criticized by the opponents of the Tea Party. And as Robert Rector and Jennifer Marshall have described in these pages, even that package left most of the means-tested welfare system unreformed.

Tea Party activists are open to strategies that take time and that aim to persuade first and legislate later. But that willingness is tempered by the sense of urgency so central to the mood of grassroots conservatives. The Tea Party lives in eternal fear of issue drift — the process by which conservatives' expectations and ambitions shrink due to too much attention paid to small goals. Conservatives remember the promise of the Breaux-Thomas Commission's embrace of a package of Medicare reforms including premium support, for instance, and they remember how easily the most politically difficult components of reform fell by the wayside as President Bush embraced the ideas easiest to sell, like an unfunded prescription-drug entitlement. With every means-tested retirement benefit reform, spending-growth formula tweak, or modest tax compromise we rally around, we deflate the momentum for achieving transformation in these and other areas. For the Tea Party, there is too much on the line to embrace lowered expectations.

The movement's more aggressive approach, by contrast, has produced significant if flawed policy victories in recent years. That spending growth has leveled off despite the re-election of the most liberal president in modern history is a real achievement. Such victories are not final; the next president cannot govern by sequester. But they do set the stage for better policy in the future. The approach that has planted seeds through small victories over the last four years — internal consensus-building and education through conflict, hard-line negotiation, and resistance to the inclination toward deal-making for deal-making's sake — may yet yield future rewards if conservatives do not abandon it for fear of failure.

Tea Party activists and their allies in Washington understand that they will not achieve all they seek within the next two, six, or even ten years. They recognize the danger of becoming Adam Smith's "man of system." Especially in light of last year's election and the prospects for victory in 2016, they are conscious of the need to educate and persuade, and to value long-term gains over short-term catharsis. But they remain skeptical that our political leaders have the vision to deliver such gains without prodding.


Unified Republican control of the Congress now presents an opportunity for a reset, perhaps making possible a fresh start for collaboration between the grassroots and the Republican leadership that has long been reluctant to govern from one house of Congress.

Having faced years of charges of obstructionism, Republican leaders are no doubt anxious to demonstrate to the American people their competence for governing. They will have opportunities to do so early in the next Congress by generating bipartisan coalitions on consensus issues like approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, potentially sending legislation to the president's desk for signature.

They must, however, keep in mind that conservatives expect more than bill signings, particularly ones that primarily serve the interests of the business community. We got plenty of those in 2009 and 2010. The biggest problem facing the American people isn't gridlock in Washington; it's stagnation in America — slow growth in wages, poor economic mobility, weakening social cohesion, a high cost of living exacerbated by government distortions of crucial markets. The Republican Party's primary concern must be advancing policies that change these trends and, to the extent that the policies of the Obama Administration are to blame, turning the page on the last six years.

The president and his party will naturally be reluctant partners at best in such a project, and Republicans therefore must conceive of their most important efforts as designed to operate around them. The prospect of enacting legislation, tantalizing as it may be, will be more of a distraction for the remainder of the Obama presidency than a tangible goal. Exceptions will be rare, enabled generally not by the merit of compromise ideas but by the confluent desires of special interests on the right and left. Republicans looking ahead to 2016 should not aim for supposed triumphs like the bipartisan, business- and La Raza-approved 2013 amnesty bill, which did more than any proposal since Obamacare to unite the conservative grassroots in fury.

The Senate, like the president, will continue to serve as a stumbling block for reform efforts even under Republican control due to the 60-vote threshold to break filibusters, meaning that even the prospect of sending bills to the president's desk for veto will often be more fantasy than reality. But winning the Senate should not cause the GOP to trim its own sails to accommodate the realities of the upper chamber. The budget reconciliation process allows conservatives an opportunity to bring legislation on an issue of maximum contrast like Obamacare to the president's desk with 51 Senate votes. Meanwhile, conservatives maintain the power to advance a broader policy agenda without concessions to the left by passing bills and resolutions through the House alone with simple majorities.

This mechanism for internal consensus-building and platform development led in 2011 to the party's embrace of premium support for Medicare. The House should continue this pattern in 2015 with an optimistic agenda addressing the real concerns of working-class Americans: the price and quality of health care; the state of our school system and the affordability of appropriate higher-education opportunities; unaffordable prices for food, gas, and housing; and the availability of well-paid jobs.

We know a Republican Senate would at least take up the pieces of this agenda if received from the House — an important departure from years past. The gridlock ensuing from a Democratic filibuster, while not ideal, would still provide opportunities to educate and persuade the nation of the merits of our vision — though only if the party offers a reasonably unified front championing solidly conservative legislation.

Such debates over the nature of the new Republican opportunity agenda will be punctuated by conflicts over so-called "must-pass" legislation. Some will view these as short-term distractions, but wrongly so. While these are often used as chances for partisan haranguing and primary-election posturing, they can serve as important opportunities to open up discussion about vital policy reforms related to each deadline. This year will feature a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, presenting an opportunity to open a public debate about transformational reform of the accreditation system. The Export-Import Bank's reauthorization is set to expire, offering a chance to distinguish between the two parties on issues of corporate welfare. The Medicare Sustainable Growth Rate will be due for a new patch, allowing for further development of the Republican Party's position on Medicare reform. Myriad appropriations bills will move through both houses, allowing debates (if not passage) of reforms of agencies and programs of all sorts. These fights will not go away just because the congressional leadership would prefer not to have them. The question is whether the leadership will choose to embrace the Tea Party's passion and leverage these moments strategically or whether it will resist, forcing messy intramural fights that do not help the effort to construct a positive agenda or a favorable political brand.

Through it all, the Tea Party can be an asset to conservative lawmakers committed to using their platform to articulate a reform agenda. As Democrats saw at their 2010 town halls, these activists can be a force to be reckoned with when turned on a recalcitrant left — as would ideally be the case in the event of Democratic filibustering of popular House-passed measures. But the Tea Party can devote its efforts to such tasks only if the Republican Party is discharging its own duties appropriately. Otherwise, it will continue to serve as a pressure mechanism on the right, demanding that conservative legislation be brought to the floor in each chamber, criticizing deal-making that undermines conservative priorities, and holding risk-averse Republicans accountable for squandering opportunities for productive interparty conflict.


Some in Washington dream of a Republican Party with a unified focus only on "non-ideological" priorities inoffensive to the movable middle of voting Americans and consistent with the desires of the party's donor base. That party will always be a fantasy. The conservative grassroots is a reality, and it will not be sated by Republican elites' consistent appeals to wait one more election cycle before pursuing policy victories.

What kind of year will this be? What kind of legacy will the 114th Congress leave? Will the prelude to the 2016 campaign leave conservatives better positioned to win a mandate for reform in the next presidential election, or will it serve only to divide the movement within itself?

The answers to those questions depend primarily on the answer to another: Will the Republican Party invest its energy in maintaining the status quo and undermining its base, or will it choose instead to embrace the grassroots activists who are so eager to join with it in common cause?

The Republican establishment will not force the Tea Party to stand down. The path of least resistance for Republicans — the path most conducive both to political victory and to reform — is to stand with the grassroots.

Michael A. Needham is the chief executive officer of Heritage Action for America.


from the


A weekly newsletter with free essays from past issues of National Affairs and The Public Interest that shed light on the week's pressing issues.


to your National Affairs subscriber account.

Already a subscriber? Activate your account.


Unlimited access to intelligent essays on the nation’s affairs.

Subscribe to National Affairs.