The Tea Party lost big by forcing this fall's government shutdown, and it is slated to take a major hit in next year's midterm elections. Such is the current wisdom, in any case, among mainstream political pundits. But this analysis is too easy. It imagines that progressives will make gains without the hard work of organizing. And it presumes that Democrats can put forward a compelling agenda that will give people something to vote for, rather than merely expressing distaste for Washington altogether.
To get a more nuanced take on the political fallout of the shutdown, I spoke with longtime electoral strategist Steve Cobble. He is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, a co-founder of Progressive Democrats of America and a senior political adviser to Free Speech for People, a group engaged in the fight to roll back Citizens United and end the idea that corporations are people. Cobble served as a leader in the Jesse Jackson campaign of 1988 and more recently in Dennis Kucinich's presidential campaigns in 2004 and 2008.
Given his background, Cobble identifies with the Democratic Party, yet he is consistently critical of the party's neoliberal wing. In our conversation, he questioned whether the Democrats' fear of populism and failure to seriously challenge Wall Street will allow the Tea Party to hold on to the populist mantle - and to retain strength because of that.
I started by restating the common belief that the Tea Party will suffer electoral setbacks because of the shutdown. Cobble jumped in immediately.
"I don't believe that," he said. "If the Tea Party is going for a smaller party that's more pure, they're not necessarily deterred by getting beaten. [With incidents like the shutdown,] they just feel like they got sold out, so they redouble their efforts. At some point, this process will curdle on itself and collapse, but I don't think we've reached that point yet. I think the Tea Party's going to keep fighting. If the Republican caucus in Iowa for president was next week, I think Ted Cruz would win it."
Interestingly, Cobble believes that the Tea Party's fight with Wall Street Republicans will allow it to strengthen its populist appeal.
"One of the interesting dynamics of the Tea Party that's going to come up," he argued, "is that they're going to get into primary fights with the Wall Street wing of the Republicans. That's not necessarily bad for the Tea Party, because one of the quickest ways to get back in the fight is to have Wall Street - one of the most hated parts of the American scene - start trying to take out your champions. At that point, you can run against both Washington and Wall Street. Their primary fights will have a funny way of reinforcing their argument that they're the ones who like Wall Street the least.
"There's a huge resentment on the far right and the far left, which actually extends quite a bit toward the middle of average Americans, that Wall Street screwed us and then bought off Washington - and got away with it. I think there's still power in that argument. Unfortunately, the Democratic Party's not making it. No one thinks that the monetary penalties that the Justice Department is administering on the banks are real penalties. As somebody wrote the other day, it's like a traffic ticket to JPMorgan. The only person who goes to jail is Martha Stewart.
"So the right wing's probably going to develop their argument against Wall Street better in the next year because they're going to be in primaries against corporations that are mad at the Tea Party for almost blowing up the economy. The Tea Party's going to be directly fighting with chamber-of-commerce types who are scared that they're losing control of the party that they've owned since World War II."
Given that progressive gains are unlikely to happen by themselves, I asked Cobble what lessons he thought we could draw from the Tea Party's defeat in the showdown.
"One lesson that I hope everybody learned, including the president," he said, "is that sometimes it turns out to be really good to just state your position clearly and stick to it: Don't negotiate with yourself early, which Obama's done in the past. He did a pretty good job on this one. He stated his case. He stuck to it, and he waited until they broke. I think at the moment, [the Democrats] have a mobilized party. If the elections were next week, I think we'd do very well and we might even take back the House. We would certainly hold the Senate.
"However, the first thing coming out of the box is talk about a grand bargain or some other nonsense. [The administration is] going to demoralize the very people that they just fired up by taking away part of their retirement. It makes no sense whatsoever, either politically or policy-wise. I assume that the president and his people would disagree with me on the policy. But I don't know how anybody could disagree on the politics. Americans are very clear. They don't want people screwing around with their retirement and they don't believe in these grand bargains. The Erskine-Bowles argument has never had any traction with the base, the average family in Ohio, yet [the administration] keeps coming back to it."
Following up on this idea, I argued that thwarting the Tea Party is certainly a worthy goal. However, making them pay for the shutdown still puts Democrats in a defensive fight. I asked whether a progressive agenda can be based upon merely remediating evil, rather than by putting forward a vision of what we really want.
"Yes, I think the second lesson is about asking for what you want," Cobble said. "The president won re-election by being more populist than he had been in the first three years of his administration, and I was hoping he would take a lesson out of that. I've never seen the Republicans give us any quarter when we try to meet them halfway. Obama's tested this out repeatedly. He warps his entire health care plan to try to get Susan Collins and Mike Enzi and Charles Grassley to take one tiny step over and vote against cloture. Yet the Republicans turn around and say, 'He passed that health care plan without a single Republican vote' - as if it was Obama's plan to do that, instead of theirs. So I think we might as well ask for what we want.
"We're so far from the imaginary arrangement where the Democrats are at the 40-yard line left of midfield and Republicans are at the 40-yard line right of midfield. Instead, the Democrats are sort of at the 45-yard line on the wrong side of the field and the Republicans are at the 10-yard line - and the Tea Party's at the 2-yard line. All the fighting is about stuff that should be at the 25- or 30-yard line. They state their side with clarity and principle, and even when they lose, the conversation's on their topic. So we just kicked their ass on a shutdown, and yet we're still caught in an austerity program.
"You have to ask for something that's big enough to mobilize people around," he said. "If we can't mobilize people, we can't move the agenda. So the party needs to ask for things that are popular. The obvious one for next year is to have minimum-wage events everywhere. It's popular, and it fits in with all the organizing that's going on at the grass roots. The minimum wage is a place where we could help define ourselves in a way that fits in with everything else we care about - and it's popular.
"The agenda's moved so far to the right that we can speak clearly. We can do things that are progressive and also very popular. Most people will support them because now the agenda's been pulled so far to the right that it's unrecognizable. We could expand Social Security, expand Medicare, fight for the minimum wage, and most people would say, 'Yeah, I'm for that.'
"They wouldn't see it as left or crazy. They would see it as common sense."