Fear The Grasstops Not The Grassroots

Jonathan Bernstein observes that John Boehner thinks the feisty right-wing of the GOP base can be bought off largely with symbolic measures:

I think it’s an indication that Boehner believes that the Tea Partiers are going to be a fairly easy bunch to manage. Toss them some symbolic stuff, and then blame everything after that on Harry Reid and Barack Obama, and you’ve pretty much done what you need to do. Is he right? I’m not sure, but it’s not a bad bet. That’s partially because Boehner knows going in that he doesn’t have the votes (in the Senate and the White House, that is) to actually fulfill the Tea Party agenda. If that ultimately is going to sink him — if activists won’t, at the end of the day, accept a quarter of a loaf and cheer — then it doesn’t really matter what Boehner does. If, however, Tea Party concerns are really just symbolic anyway, then it makes sense to address them with symbolism.

Ezra Klein comments that “It’ll be really interesting to see how the tea party does — or doesn’t — adapt to having allies in power.”

I think it’s really important not to engage in too much reification of “the tea party” in these kind of discussions. You don’t need to endorse the view that the tea party phenomenon is some kind of astroturf to recognize that that there’s a major grasstops element to the whole thing. Suppose there’s some sellout that John Boehner wants to implement. Boehner recognizes that he needs to pair this with a symbolic but meaningless gesture. Now suppose he sits down in a room with Rupert Murdoch, Rush Limbaugh, Tom Donohue, and David Koch and persuades all three of those people that this is the right way to proceed. Then the next day, Boehner unleashes his symbolic gesture and his compromise, and the coverage of it on Fox News, The Rush Limbaugh Show, and the fox-affiliated radio shows is all positive. That alone gets you the three most popular talk radio shows, the television network, The Weekly Standard, a dose of influence at every single conservative think tank in America, and the important organizing efforts of Americans For Prosperity.

How far is a right-wing challenger going to get with those forces arrayed against him?

Not far. And the basic principles of elite signaling indicate that support among that group will lead to more support. It wouldn’t be a smart move for Mike Huckabee or Sarah Palin or Mitt Romney to get on the wrong side of Rush & Fox. Jim DeMint might or might not find it useful to act as a rightwing defector from dealmaking, but he wouldn’t actually get anywhere without conservative media to back him. In essence, coordinated action among a very small number of people can cut the oxygen off from the tea party fire any time they want to. So the question becomes not how “the tea party” will react, but how a relatively small number of influential conservative media figures will react.