How the GOP Will Have to Work With the Tea Party

Photos: Inside the Tea Party Win McNamee / Getty Images

After a momentous midterm election, now the focus turns to how the GOP adapts to the Tea Party, and how President Obama adapts to the newly empowered GOP. Pundits have suggested that the president follow the Clinton model by seeking common ground with Republicans in Congress, and he's certain to try—it's in his DNA. But there's not much evidence the Republicans will want to join him. If that's the case and gridlock looms, there's another option: running against a "do-nothing Congress."

It worked for President Truman. When the GOP-controlled Congress voted down every one of his legislative proposals in a special summer session, it provided a convenient foil for the fall campaign, when Truman surprised all the pundits with the greatest upset in presidential history. The analogy isn't perfect for Obama—Democrats still hold the majority in the Senate—but you would think that if the president learned anything from Tuesday night's "shellacking" (as he put it), it's to call out the Republicans for their obstructionism.

Even if the Republican effort to repeal health-care reform fails, as it surely will, it's the Obama equivalent of the Clinton impeachment, infused with much of the same partisan adrenaline and political peril. If newly empowered GOP leaders can't keep Tea Party passions in check and the repeal seems like an overreach, public opinion could turn against the new GOP majority as quickly as it did against Obama. Democrats held the House for 40 years before the GOP took over in 1994; 12 years later, voters ousted them. This time around, Democrats got only four years. "This is pretty transitory," says Republican pollster Bill McInturff, pointing to the whipsaw nature of modern politics. "They'll keep voting people out until things get better."

Wearing his "We the People" tie to reflect the message of the election, McInturff sat down over bacon and eggs with reporters on Thursday morning to discuss the road ahead for his party. He acknowledged that health-care repeal creates problems, but Republicans ran on their opposition to the law, and GOP leaders John Boehner and Mitch McConnell both repeated their pledge to pursue repeal as a first order of business. "People knew what they were getting into," says McInturff, as he delineated the outsized influence of the Tea Party on the Republican Party.

His polling finds three distinct groups within the GOP: a third say they're not members of Tea Party, a third say they identify as both Republican and Tea Party, and a third who think of themselves as Tea Partiers first. "They're like the special forces elite troops," says McInturff of this latter contingent. The third of the party with dual allegiance to the GOP and Tea Party he calls the regular army, and the Republicans who don't gravitate to the Tea Party are the support troops "far from the front lines," he says.

A third of the party doesn't sound like dominance, but in a primary the "special forces" may make up as much as 45 percent of Republican voters, "and they are in a no-compromise stance," McInturff says. "They want no engagement with the president, and that's their mood." Asked whether he equates the Tea Party zeal to overturn the health-care law as comparable to the zeal to impeach President Clinton, McInturff recalls that in February 1999, when impeachment was at a fever pitch on Capitol Hill, only 32 percent of the American public favored impeachment, "and they were 94 percent Republican." As a whole, the public didn't want impeachment, but Republicans didn't listen when McInturff and other strategists warned against proceeding in the face of such negative public opinion. (Democrats ended up gaining seats in the '98 midterm.)

Republicans told him it was one of the votes they would be remembered for, that it was history, that Clinton had lied and disgraced the presidency. Health care is comparable in the sense that Republicans seriously disagree with the policy, says McInturff; they especially don't like the mandate, and they're committed to repeal as part of the reason they're in power. This time around, a majority of Americans seem to agree with the GOP about repeal (though polls have also found that when asked about specific provisions of the health-care law, most Americans support them). Whether or not the party succeeds in dismantling the law or parts of it, or slowing down its implementation, the fight will continue, with health care a symbol to Republicans of all that's wrong with Obama and the Democrats. "This will be an issue in 2012 and beyond," McInturff says.

The electorate that sent the Democrats packing this week was older and whiter and more conservative than the electorate that put Obama in the White House, and it isn't necessarily a harbinger for 2012. It packed a wallop in the Rust Belt, from Wisconsin to upstate New York, with the $500 billion cut in Medicare Advantage very much on the minds of seniors, whom Obama lost by 18 points this time around. People under 30, a typically reliable Obama base, were 18 percent of the '08 electorate and only half that in this election. Groups more favorable to Obama will presumably be back once he's on the ballot, and if every day chasing after health-care repeal is seen by voters as a day not spent on job creation, Republicans could lose their mojo just as fast as Obama lost his.

Eleanor Clift is also the author of Two Weeks of Life: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Politics and Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment.