Jacob Heilbrunn

Who's Scared of the Tea Party?

John McCain took a swipe at the Tea Party on the Senate floor yesterday. Reading from a Wall Street Journal editorial, he denounced those opposed to raising the debt ceiling in the House as "hobbits." Allowing the economy to collapse would be tantamount to helping reelect President Obama, McCain said, as he echoed the sentiments Sen. Mitch McConnell expressed a few weeks ago.

In McCain's words (as reported by the Los Angeles Times),

"This is the kind of crack political thinking that turned Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell into GOP Senate nominees," he said, referring to the failed tea-party-backed candidates from Nevada and Delaware. "The reality is the debt limit will be raised one way or the other.... If conservatives defeat the [GOP] plan, they will not only undermine their House majority, they will go far to reelecting Mr. Obama and making entitlements that much harder to reform."

But will they? Is McCain right? Or is he part of fading old guard that no longer has the power to face down the revolutionaries on the right?

Usually, politicians are vilified for being trimmers, for lacking conviction. The Tea Party members in Congress are different. Their stance seems straightforward. They were elected to oppose more spending. They are. Their argument could not be clearer: America doesn't face a debt crisis. Instead, it faces a spending crisis. Cut outlays and the debt crisis will vanish. Simple as that.

Except of course it isn't. Running a deficit temporarily can be good for the economy in a time of recession. And failing to raise the debt ceiling will be inimical to economic growth—as the current decline in the stock market indicates—and would actually cause the deficit to rise further, as will a downgrade of America's bond rating.

What the Tea Party has accomplishedand it is no small accomplishment—is to force a recalcitrant political system to focus on the looming deficits created by entitlement and military spending. Neither is sustainable. This has been the mantra of groups like the Concord Coalition for over a decade. But no one really paid much attention. Now they are. Absent the pressures created by the Tea Party there would be no movement at all on the question of America's debt.

Even if the Tea Party loses this battle, it could end up winning the war. Indeed, if House speaker John Boehner forces Republicans to fall into line to vote for his plan, it could embolden the Tea Party to redouble its efforts to take over the GOP. More primary challenges, more purity tests, and so forth. Like John Paul Jones, the credo of the Tea Party may well become, "We have not yet begun to fight."