Richard Reeves

Oh, What a Tea Party!

NEW YORK -- In my experience, all institutional decisions are made for internal reasons, then are publicly presented as changes made for external reasons -- for the customers, the clients, all the good people out there.

I saw a bit of how it worked when I was in the corporate world, Ingersoll Rand, then some large newspapers. But then, doing a book in the 1980s, I explored why companies moved their corporate headquarters -- usually out of New York City in those days. "Experts," often from Dun & Bradstreet, were hired to check cost of living and living standards, local taxes, schools, medical facilities and labor costs, shipping distances to major markets. They handed in impressive binders filled with statistics and observations, and then recommended the town where the chief executive officer lived or wanted to live.

So, American Airlines, whose CEO was chairman of the commission trying to keep business in the city, went back home to Dallas. His counterpart, the CEO of what used to be Trans World Airlines, moved his company to Webster Groves, Mo., where his family was still living.

I recall that ancient history because it reminds me of what happened in Washington these last weeks. Whatever they tell us, the men and women who run the country are governing for themselves and by themselves. The nation was not particularly involved and certainly had no idea what happened -- the same could be said of much of the Congress.

The big winners in the budget "deal" were the people who understood the least: the tea party folk, a minority, generally ignorant, who had a simple plan, easy to execute. They just did nothing but wave the pledges they had signed never to raise taxes, particularly on rich people. Their nominal party, the Republicans, could not bring them into the party -- or the government, for that matter. Without knowing it, they were fulfilling the dream of William F. Buckley, that is, standing in the path of progress and shouting "Stop!" Of course, they would not understand Buckley, and I doubt he would have been seen in public with them.

Every analysis I've heard or read so far has intimated that no one won this battle over the trivia of debt ceilings. The conventional wisdom is that neither side got what it wanted.

No. No. No. The know-nothing conservatives, the new members of the House, won a historic victory. The most intelligent commentary I heard was from Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. Paraphrasing, he said: "We have changed the nature of government from spend, spend, spend to cut, cut, cut!" The new members drove the process.

A minority blackmailed their opponents (in both parties). Our way or the highway! If you remember, the debt ceiling came up as a procedural matter. There was no talk of such things as a "balanced budget amendment" and all the other ideas and misperceptions the tea party tagged on as the White House dithered under the illusion that Speaker of the House John Boehner actually ran the House. In fact, he was a prisoner of a small group of inmates who had filed their spoons into knives.

And President Obama went along with it. Presumably he believed Boehner could deal with the hostage-takers. He tried to disguise his actions in the cloak of disaster if the United States defaulted technically on its financial obligations. That was kind of scary, but it was never the issue. The issue was the role and size and duty of the government. As Alexander said, those things were changed during these chaotic weeks.

Yogi Berra famously said, "It ain't over until it's over." The 2012 elections are going to be critical in terms of which way the Republicans choose to go -- compromise or go over the cliff. The ironic thing is that, Obama, who screwed up on this -- not a single new dime of revenue is in the bill he signed -- will probably be re-elected rather easily. But the real question is whether the tea party know-nothings can convince the country it doesn't need a government and can control the internal decision-making of the Congress -- which they do now.

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