Review of the “When the Tea Party Came to Town” by Robert Draper

When the Tea Party Came to Town: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives' Most Combative, Dysfunctional, and Infuriating Term in Modern HistoryWhen the Tea Party Came to Town: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives’ Most Combative, Dysfunctional, and Infuriating Term in Modern History by Robert Draper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I caught a good sale at Amazon, so I picked this one up as a Kindle download. Sort of goes without saying that the book would not be for those not interested in how Congress works. For all others it is a good read, shedding light on some of the changes that came to pass with the arrival of the GOP Tea Party class of 2010, 87 strong. The book, in my opinion, comes off as non-judgemental, giving us a view from the perspective of so many newcomers to any government service.

The GOP freshmen class did not take long to start having an impact, bringing to Washington a deep disdain of government, an avowed desire to deeply slash spending, and an unshakeable belief that major changes they desired could occur while they only controlled the House. That belief eventually brought them into conflict with their own Speaker, John Boehner, who was really stuck between a rock and a hard place, dealing with his unruly caucus on one hand, and the Senate and Harry Reid on the other, with President Obama in the White House holding a large veto pen. The freshmen class and their fundamental lack of understanding of how Congress works brought much tension, and gridlock, to that institution. This book looks at that Congress through the eyes of some of those freshmen. I thought the author was exceedingly kind to Alan West, and obviously had great access to some of the most important members of that class, including West.

If you are trying to understand the roots of modern Congressional gridlock, and the fundamental reason John Boehner was eventually exiled by his own caucus, this book will help. It would be fair to say that American government, for fundamental operations, has always managed to compromise where political division existed. That does not mean that the politicians of yesterday were afraid to score political points, but that to some degree the adults in the room managed to keep government operating while debating fundamental political differences. This new group of freshmen felt that such “compromise” was a bad thing, and had brought negative results to the country. They were determined to bring more fundamental change, and had sold that idea to the voters back home who sent them to Washington. Governing would be secondary to ideological change. GOP Senator John Ensign summed it up:

“We got obsessed with governing,” Ensign said—adding with distaste, “making sure the trains run on time. Well, what if the train is heading towards the cliff?”

Although Ensign was not a member of this Congressional class his quote, in my view, summed up the philosophy accurately.

I am a Democrat, and I have had my share of partisan disgust at the gridlock and nonsense that substitutes for actual governing in Congress. I have looked at the actions of Congress and said to myself how could these people do (insert latest outrage). The reality is that we have created, ourselves, the system that we so decry. These GOP freshmen were not outliers, but rather accurately reflected the wishes of their constituents. Congressional gerrymandering, designed to protect incumbents and create ideologically homogeneous Congressional Districts, has worked on both fronts. Adding the gasoline of talk radio and new media (with a financial stake in political combat) to that mix and governing became an afterthought. The GOP leadership was slow to catch on, but with earmarks gone and the folks back home clamoring to defeat the socialists they were soon dissuaded of the notion that traditional compromise might be possible.

“Boehner, Cantor, and McCarthy had endeavored to find an upside to Congress’s deepening unpopularity. Perhaps, they hoped, the freshmen would get an earful back home and return to Washington in September with a newfound eagerness to compromise. But it wasn’t quite shaping up that way. The district maps that had been redrawn this year by predominantly GOP-controlled state legislatures as a result of the 2010 census meant that many Republicans now represented much more conservative territory—or, in some cases, much more Democratic, forcing them to migrate to a new district and run against a fellow Republican and in the process compelling them to prove their superior conservative bona fides. Right-wing advocates such as Heritage Action and Erick Erickson of continued to rate members on their votes and agitated for primary challenges against less conservative members like freshman Martha Roby and the Missouri moderate Jo Ann Emerson. (“Wow, what did you do to piss off Erick Erickson?” Texas freshman Bill Flores asked Emerson one afternoon on the House floor. She had never heard of the conservative blogger whose October 21 post began with the headline, ‘Paging the Missouri Tea Party: Here’s One to Primary.’)”

More fearful of a challenge from the right, (and a potential primary)the willingness of this new group to compromise to move government forward (or even to keep it open)was essentially lost, and likely never existed to start. Many of the newcomers were “true believers.”

Robert Draper has done a good job of following and reporting on this Congress, and showing us the mindset of the Tea Party folks who came to Washington looking to remake the federal government in a very radical way. They had impact, but never to the extent that they hoped. For that they blame Harry Reid and Barack Obama. But the real culprits were the founding fathers, who designed our system to make overnight change exceedingly difficult.

From Madison, in Federalist 51:

“A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions. This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. We see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights. These inventions of prudence cannot be less requisite in the distribution of the supreme powers of the State. But it is not possible to give to each department an equal power of self-defense. In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates. The remedy for this inconveniency is to divide the legislature into different branches; and to render them, by different modes of election and different principles of action, as little connected with each other as the nature of their common functions and their common dependence on the society will admit. It may even be necessary to guard against dangerous encroachments by still further precautions. As the weight of the legislative authority requires that it should be thus divided, the weakness of the executive may require, on the other hand, that it should be fortified.”

A solid book by Draper that is well worth a look.

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