Almost seven years after the birth of the Tea Party, it’s clear that official Washington still doesn’t understand what led to the birth and growth of the movement. Given that the latest Gallup poll indicates that roughly 50 million Americans consider themselves supporters of the movement, that’s a rather shocking fact.
Last Wednesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan spoke at an event at Heritage Action for America. During his talk, he outlined his vision for what conservatives must do during President Obama’s final year in office. His underlying plea was to “unite the clans” this year to ensure conservative victories in November. And Tea Party Patriots couldn’t agree more with that strategy.
The question, of course, is over what agenda will we be uniting.
The rest of the speech contained hints, and therein lies the problem. It was, as Paul Weldman noted in The Washington Post, a “repudiation of everything the Tea Party has done.”
Personal accountability, financial responsibility, living within one’s means, keeping promises made - these are all core tenets of the Tea Party, and our movement exists to hold elected officials accountable so that they govern by these principles and their promises. In fact, Mr. Ryan himself has been elected multiple times by running on these same principles.
How strange, then, that Mr. Ryan chose to repudiate a movement that not only supports what he professes to believe, but that also delivered historic victories for his Party in 2010 and 2014?
Of course, Washington, D.C., is an unusual place, and Americans are acutely aware of - and increasingly disgusted with - Washington’s peculiarities. Things that would never fly in the business world, or in the private sector, or in managing one’s personal finances, are routine, everyday occurrences in Washington. Americans are fed up with “business as usual” in Washington, which is a large part of the reason we see anti-establishment candidates (Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, to name three) doing so well.
Nowhere is the disconnect between Real America and Washington, D.C., more pronounced than in the area of Obamacare, which was a central topic during Mr. Ryan’s speech. As he said: “… [W]e have to be straight with each other, and more importantly, we have to be straight with the American people. We can’t promise that we can repeal Obamacare when a guy with the last name Obama is president. All that does is set us up for failure …”
Mr. Ryan portrays Tea Party conservatives as naïve for demanding repeal. Again, his words are instructive: “When voices in the conservative movement demand things that they know we can’t achieve with a Democrat in the White House, all that does is depress our base and in turn help Democrats stay in the White House.”
But it wasn’t the Tea Party that made those promises regarding the repeal of Obamacare - it was then-Speaker John Boehner, and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and, yes, future Speaker Ryan himself who made those promises in their attempts to woo our supporters.
In fact, that promise to “repeal and replace the job-killing health law,” as it was listed in the so-called “Pledge to America,” is still sitting on the speaker’s own web site!
Perhaps the speaker has forgotten the history. Shortly after Obamacare was signed into law in March 2010, Congressman Ryan, his colleagues, and scores of Republican challengers promised they would repeal Obamacare. It was a significant campaign pledge, and conservatives and a strong majority of Independents across the country voted for Republicans based almost exclusively on that promise.
Three years later, as Obamacare was becoming ever more entrenched, Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas began a brave battle to live up to the promises they and many of their colleagues had made, with an effort to block funding for the health care law. As they argued at the time, Obamacare was proving to be every bit as awful as we had predicted it would be, and Congress had a duty to use its constitutional power of the purse to render the law null and void. It was a bold move, and cost both Senators dearly. The Washington Establishment - including Democrats and Republicans - scornfully dismissed this effort, labeling them and their Tea Party supporters as quixotic, a nuisance, and worse.
That episode in 2013 revealed a dirty secret to Americans: While the GOP Establishment is all too happy to talk about repealing Obamacare on the campaign trail and when crafting messaging opportunities as it did with the 2010 “Pledge to America,” when it actually comes to making good on their promises, they are content to wring their hands helplessly and bemoan the fact that there is a Democrat in the White House. Our Founding Fathers, who labored over the meticulous details of dividing power and incentivizing accountability structures within our system of government, would no doubt be surprised that the current Speaker of the House holds the view that Congress is such an impotent body.
Speaker Ryan derides our movement as an “opposition movement,” but that misses the point; we are an accountability movement, and as such, we believe our most important responsibility is to hold Members of Congress (from both political parties!) accountable. And promises made on the campaign trail are absolutely fair game for accountability purposes.
Speaker Ryan took to the podium last Wednesday to chide us about the importance of “uniting the clans.” The Tea Party response is: “Yes, absolutely. But let’s unite around something other than capitulating to the Left’s agenda, shall we?” The Washington Establishment still has a lot to learn about the essence of the Tea Party. November’s elections should be a helpful lesson.