Why a Shrinking Tea Party Still Holds the Nation Hostage

This statistically minuscule percentage of the overall congressional body then has managed to wreak untold havoc on nearly every aspect of American life. How did that happen?
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There are three horrific facts about the bunch that's holding the nation hostage in the partial government shutdown. One is that they are either Tea Party members or affiliated with the party. Another is that they are a minority even within the minority of GOP congresspersons. The other is that their influence and numbers in the general population have plunged to the lowest point since the Tea Party inception a few years back. The recent Gallup poll found that less than one in four Americans now back the party. The poll also found that those who fiercely oppose the Tea Party have leaped in numbers.

So just how many of the GOP congresspersons that are holding the nation hostage on the budget and the deficit ceiling with their incessant, screwy demands to cut or eliminate everything from the Affordable Care Act to Head Start, actually are hardcore Tea Party aligned? The best guess is we're talking about 100. Of the 233 House Republicans these 100 congresspersons have served three years or less. But even that inflated number is probably misleading. There are about 40 House Republicans that reflexively voted against their own caucus during the last congressional session. The presumption is that they are Tea Party members or are party fellow travelers. This statistically minuscule percentage of the overall congressional body then has managed to wreak untold havoc on nearly every aspect of American life. How did that happen?

When Tea Party-affiliated candidates scored big victories and even upsets of GOP incumbents in some races in 2010 they had one mantra and that was to shrink government, and shrink it fast. However, there was a darker underside to the Tea Party surge and its appeal to legions. They had a visible and loathed target to vent their antipathy toward, President Obama. The thought of an African American sitting in the White House was stomach-wrenching too many of them. For a while, more than a few protestors at Tea Party rallies vented their spleen at Obama with outrageous, racist pictures, and posters of him, and demeaning digs and taunts. To drive their racial loathing of him home they proudly waved Confederate flags. Meanwhile, millions of Americans cheered their war call, and voted for the candidates that yelped it the loudest.

The message wasn't lost. Tea Party-backed congressional members stalled every piece of legislation that might have put people back to work, demanded draconian slashes in Medicare and Social Security, gummed up the works on debt reduction talks between Obama and GOP House leaders, and wasted congressional time and energy passing bills and amendments to kill health care reform as well as education, health, social service and law enforcement programs locally and nationally. Even before the current shutdown, Congress was at a virtual stall for two years and public approval of Congress dropped to lows that made used car salespersons look like public champions.

While the traditional GOP establishment leaders cringed at the Tea Party antics and its congressional acolyte's silly obstructionism, they still desperately needed them to have any chance of beating Obama in 2012. That didn't happen. However, the 2014 midterm elections shapes up to be a titanic battle for the GOP to hold onto the House and not lose any more ground in the Senate. GOP leaders face a catch-22. The Tea Party, though a shell of itself numbers wise, still can make enough noise and in some districts turn out sufficient numbers to make a difference in close contests. That's even more vital in swing districts with Democratic congresspersons that are on shaky ground with conservative voters.

The Gallup poll on the declining Tea Party fortunes also noted that the Tea Party backer's vehemence toward the Democratic Party is torrid. This presents yet another dilemma for the GOP. With nowhere else for Tea Party adherents to go other than the GOP, this could open the gates wide again for more challenges from Tea Party-backed candidates to GOP incumbents in 2014 and beyond. This perpetually puts GOP congresspersons in the disastrous position of having to continually look over their shoulders to see if there is a Tea Party candidate waiting in the wings to challenge if they do not tow the Tea Party line. That first and foremost must be to oppose anything that Obama proposes, no matter how many Americans support it.

Despite the Tea Party decline, there are many Americans that still think the idea of smaller government, caps on spending, and debt reduction are noble and necessary goals worth fighting for. Millions of them voted for failed GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney solely because they bought into his promise to shrink government. This along with polls that show a slender majority of Americans either are ambivalent toward or oppose the Affordable Care Act, and even blame the Democrats for the shutdown, and a healthy dose of political threats and blackmail, tells why a shrinking Tea Party still holds the nation hostage.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent MSNBC contributor. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.

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