The Road To Government Shutdown Was Paved By Summer Activism

The twin fiscal crises resolved late Wednesday night were born in the slow days of summer — not anywhere in the Capitol, where the drama played out, but in the offices of Heritage Action, a conservative activist group that wanted to end funding for the president's health care law. With the help of an ambitious new Texas senator, the group staged a series of town hall-style meetings around the country, and the Defund Obamacare movement was born.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Where did the shutdown episode and the dance on the brink of default leave the GOP? Tea Party conservatives are excoriating Senate Republicans who voted for last night's compromise to reopen the government and pay its bills. Has the rejectionist wing of the party peaked? Is it chastened by the experience of picking a fight and losing or is the good fight that House Republicans spoke of still in the early rounds, with more successful results to come?

Well, Sam Tanenhaus, of The New York Times, has written extensively about the Republicans and about American conservatism. And he joins us from New York now. Welcome to the program once again.

SAM TANENHAUS: Great to be here with you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Sam, the speaker of the House just spent a couple of weeks asking for things that he knew he couldn't get, backed by the threat of doing something that he assured the country he wouldn't do. What kind of conservatism or what kind of party leads one into that particular corner?

TANENHAUS: Well, you know, there are a couple of theories about that, Robert, that I'm sure you and listeners have heard. One is that John Boehner wants to hold on to his job and he listens very closely to his most activist, extremist wing. And the other is that maybe he wanted to give them enough rope to see where it would really lead them.

The Republican Party has been at odds with itself for many, many years, going back to battles between the moderate Dwight Eisenhower and the ideologue Robert Taft. What's different now is there seems to be a perception that they are a minority party now.

Rand Paul himself said after 2012, the Republican Party is no longer a national party. They will always have - or for the foreseeable future have - the ardent support of the people who put the particular legislators in office who dominated this debate. The question is whether they can expand that at all and how they will do it. And it's not clear that the ideologues really care whether they expand.

SIEGEL: Yeah. How do you understand, say, Senator Cruz in this case? Do you think that he literally doesn't care about the Republicans becoming a national majority party or that he really just sees the political landscape so differently that he thinks they're getting there?

TANENHAUS: Well, you know, that's the question, Robert. And I ask myself that a lot. There's a case to be made that if you have a party - in this case, the Republicans - who are not connected with the nation at large that you've kind of fallen to a defensive or survival mode. And you say, OK, we have to hold on to whatever we have, we can't see where else we're getting support, and at a time when our politics is not merely polarized but atomized - it's divided into various constituent groups - a case could be made that if you combine the Tea Party conservatives, libertarians and evangelicals, you put those three groups together, overlapping groups, you may have actually the single biggest constituency in American politics.

The problem is it doesn't build coalitions and become a majority. But as Ted Cruz, you can say, you know what, there are more people loyally supporting me than there are supporting almost anybody else. We are speaking to a kind of concurrent majority, in the phrase of John Calhoun, who is the ideologue or philosopher of a lot of this politics. That is the politics of the minority that governs as well or as much as it can.

SIEGEL: You mentioned Tea Party conservatives, libertarians and evangelicals. There are also a lot of Republicans, certainly officeholders - Mitch McConnell, Mitt Romney, John McCain, John Boehner - who don't really seem to fit into any one of those categories but they've been synonymous with the Republican Party for many years. Do they have an idea, do they have a handle with which they can respond to groups that have more pointed, if narrow, messages?

TANENHAUS: You know, Robert, I'm not really sure they do. The problem Republicans have had really since the end of the New Deal - and we're going back now, you know, 80 or 90 years - is that they don't have an alternative way of governing that reinforces or fortifies the welfare state almost all of us really expect. Even Tea Partiers who say they don't like it, we know very well are not giving up their Medicare, they're not giving up their Social Security. And so the paradox for the Republicans is they want to make an anti or small government case to a population that really doesn't believe it.

SIEGEL: Sam Tanenhaus, thanks for talking with us once again.

TANENHAUS: Always a pleasure, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's Sam Tanenhaus, who is writer at large for The New York Times.

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