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What Obama, Tea Party Have in Common

Date: Monday, April 11, 2011, 5:22 am By: Deborah Mathis –

What might President Obama and the congressional Tea Partiers have in common?

After vowing to change the way Washington works, both have learned that the cemetery of American politics is filled with the bones of crushed intentions and trampled vows.

The president campaigned as a consensus builder, a man married to the notion that reason and civility are transcendent qualities that, when earnestly applied, can turn the bitter into the sweet. Or, at least, the not-so-bitter.

Time and again – to the frustration and consternation of large swaths of his base – Mr. Obama cajoled, coddled and courted Republicans on Capitol Hill, offering them scotch and crudités in the White House by night, only to get no respect from them in the morning. Time and again, the president found that compromise wasn’t good enough; he had to capitulate. Witness, the absence of a public option in the health care bill and, more recently, the tax breaks for wealthy people, and the decision to keep Guantanamo Bay up and running.

Likewise, the Tea Party newbies in Congress arrived, fuming and foaming, to “fix” the federal government – mainly, by bulldozing fiscal policy and social policy, as if demolishing the house is the way to put out a kitchen fire.

So fierce was their determination that the most die-hard didn’t even bother pretending that they cared about the government shutting down for lack of funding. In the recent budget turmoil, as the GOP leadership was giving lip service to keeping the government running, Mike Pence of Indiana said, unblinkingly, “shut it down,” proving he had been co-opted, cowed or emboldened by the Tea Party upstarts.

In the end, however, the Tea Partiers discovered that they, too, had to settle down and take a deep breath. And that, to live to fight another day, you’ve got to bend in Washington.

Although that is the supreme lesson of recent days, there are no assurances that either side has taken it to heart.

The Tea Party folks have already said they are going to go all-out to fight proposals to raise the country’s debt ceiling – a regrettable but critical move to keep the dollar and the bond rating from sinking, which would only precipitate more, and possibly deeper, economic troubles, which we need like a hole in the head.

And, by all predictions, when attentions turn to the budget for 2012, hell may break loose. The rebels are going after the sacred cows of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, which, along with defense, are the behemoths of federal spending.

This will get ugly, but unless there has been a seismic shift in Washington that no one has detected – and you can’t not notice a truly shift of seismic proportions – the American people should not expect any of those domestic programs to be deep-sixed. I’m not saying they will remain unscathed, but, if the Tea Party crowd thinks it’s powerful enough to force draconian changes to programs that mean so much to so many, it’s more off its rocker than suspected.

Among the veteran, pre-Tea Party GOPers, even those who call themselves hard-line conservatives want to preserve, first and foremost, their re-electability. Drastic moves always put that in jeopardy. My bet is that the Tea Party newbies will soon become more concerned with keeping their jobs than with their extreme “fixes.”

And, here is where the president is well ahead of them. He figured out early on that 2008 wasn’t just about making history, about the first black presidency, about “change you can believe in” or about power to the people. What he knows – and the Tea Party Congress members will soon discern – is that 2008 was about 2012.

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