A recent headline, “Tea Party Leverage Fading in Spending Talks,” reminds me of the not-always-understood difficulty of transforming electoral success into policy success.
Every time an outsider comes to Washington, you hear the pledge: ”We’re gonna take the campaign into the halls of Congress. The election might be over but the permanent campaign is not. We’re gonna mobilize our millions of voters to remind Congress who really calls the shots around here.”
We heard this on Election Day 1976 when the voters sent Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia, all the way to the nation’s capital. We heard it with Obama. And again with the Tea Party.
And then a bit later comes the criticism–the new team has gone native. They’ve forgotten the grassroots. And, a couple years later, the second-guessing: if only they hadn’t disbanded their campaign organization, they’d have some real leverage in Washington. We heard this about Obama last year, that he squandered the opportunity represented by his massive email list.
Why does the same script play out over and over? (Even in the case of a president such as Reagan or Bush 2 who achieves legislative success, I don’t think you can attribute much of this success to direct pressure from the grassroots.) Possibly because what it takes to mobilize voters in an election is not the same as what it takes to win votes in Congress, or even what it takes to scare members of Congress into thinking they might lose the next election.
To put it another way, the Tea Party voters did their job, just as the Obama voters did their job two years earlier. They expressed their preferences and changed the government. Now it’s the politicians turn to do their jobs, which is not to follow the wishes of their more extreme supporters, but to govern in a way such as to earn majority support in two years. (You might want your politicians to have other jobs, but the way the system is structured, their basic job is to win reelection. Let’s just hope that the conditions for increasing the chance of reelection generally align with what’s good for the country.)
Mobilizing your mass of supporters in a permanent campaign? Maybe this is a great idea, but maybe there’s a reason why, even though it can work for the National Rifle Association and the teachers’ unions, it doesn’t seem to work for politicians. Instead of thinking that Carter, Obama, and now the Tea Party activists have failed to keep up the grassroots pressure, perhaps we should be thinking that such a strategy isn’t going to happen. And maybe that’s a good thing.