The Tea Party Moves On

Tea Party
Attendees cheer at the Tea Party Patriots 'Exempt America from Obamacare' rally on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, September 10, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The Heritage Foundation has a message for conservatives. "We are facing a very serious debt crisis because our nation's leadership has a spending problem," read an email Wednesday from the conservative think tank, signed by its president, former senator Jim DeMint. Heritage has a "detailed blueprint for spending reform" that it will deliver to lawmakers on November 1.

What is stunning about this message is what it does not say: Obamacare. What happened to repealing the Affordable Care Act? Heritage, along with its political nonprofit, Heritage Action, led the ultraconservative push to repeal the health-care law. DeMint and Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, spent the month of August rallying the Republican base, promising it was possible to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and then backed Cruz's strategy of withholding government funding unless the law was defunded.

But that effort failed last week, and the calls for the law's repeal have abruptly ceased.

That's the message coming from big Tea Party groups who helped force the shutdown earlier this month. It seems like yesterday that these groups were lobbying to keep the government shut and even breach the debt ceiling to ensure Obamacare's repeal. Now, with budget negotiations about to begin between the House and Senate, Tea Party activists can hardly bring themselves to mention the law they so hate.

"My people understand, as long as Obama is president, he's not going to repeal his law," said Chris Chocola, president of Club for Growth, one of the outside spending groups funding Tea Party candidates to challenge mainstream moderate Republican lawmakers.

As Congress heads into the next round of budget negotiations, these groups are no longer demanding lawmakers hold government funding hostage in return for repealing, defunding or delaying the health-care law. "I think that probably the debate will move towards a spending discussion, a fiscal policy discussion," Chocola said. Tellingly, he wouldn't rule out supporting a budget deal that doesn't touch the health-care law.

"That battle has now passed, and now you're going to start looking at other things," said Adam Brandon, an executive vice president at FreedomWorks, another Tea Party group behind the shutdown strategy. "We're going to be very much focused on the Vitter Amendment." That's a proposal by Senator David Vitter, R-La., that would raise the cost of health-care coverage for congressional staffers but have no impact on the law itself.

Repealing Obamacare "may take the elections rather than the machinations on the Hill," said Sal Russo, co-founder of the Tea Party Express, a super PAC working to elect Tea Party-style Republicans in 2014. Republicans need to focus on economic growth, spending, and debt, he said, the "core issues that led to the Tea Party being formed in the first place."

"I don't think anybody suspects that's going to be a vehicle to address something with Obamacare," said Dan Holler, communications director for Heritage Action, referring to the upcoming budget talks, though he insisted the group was still looking for a legislative means to stop the law. Instead, Holler and Brandon stressed that they want to see the sequester cuts maintained in the budget negotiations.

That is quite a change from last week, when the Affordable Care Act was the top priority for groups like FreedomWorks and Club for Growth. After a months-long strategy to halt Obamacare, Tea Party groups are adjusting to a new reality: They lost and Obamacare will go into effect. "Nobody won; everybody lost. We're continuing to head headlong into financial ruin," Chocola said.

But by concentrating on Obamacare the Tea Party has made great strides - so much so, you wonder whether repeal was ever the ultimate goal. The shutdown campaign has rallied the Tea Party base. Interest has increased and donations have poured in, and it has a new wedge issue with which to mount challenges to mainstream Republicans.

"The base is all fired up," Brandon said. "So all this work that the activists did was worth it."

FreedomWorks is one of several groups that plan to use the lessons of the shutdown in primary battles against moderate Republican incumbents. "Where you have opportunities to upgrade, we're going to try to push those opportunities to upgrade," Brandon said.

These activists contend the shutdown won't hurt Republicans at the mid-term elections in November next year, despite the party's rock-bottom approval ratings. "When people continue to have an unsatisfactory experience [with Obamacare], they're going to remember, 'Oh yeah, those guys who everyone said were radical [and who] shut down the government. I guess they were right,' " Chocola said.

Going forward, the repeal talk may be dead, but attacks will continue, starting with the glitch-ridden website. Holler at Heritage Action said part of the strategy is to hold congressional hearings where Republicans can highlight personal stories of ordinary Americans adversely affected by the law.

Then there are smaller pieces of legislation, like the Vitter amendment, that are likely to resurface. On the state level, groups like the Koch brothers' outfit Americans for Prosperity are trying to convince states not to expand Medicaid and urging young people not to buy health care in the exchanges.

But not everyone got the memo that repeal is dead. Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, says her group will continue to press the health-care issue in the imminent fiscal wrangling. "What we will continue to do is bring the health-care law into the focus of attention when these debates come up," she said.

Representative Michele Bachmann, R-Minnesota, didn't get the memo either. Ahead of the shutdown, she told The Washington Post the shutdown was "exactly what we wanted, and we got it." Now, she says she is not giving up on repealing Obamacare.

"We are not going to allow this foreseeable disaster destroy the American people's lives and destroy the economy," Bachmann said. But when the possibility of another shutdown over the law came up, she got mad. "The president shut down government, not us," she said. "So just report it accurately." Then she hurried away.