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The tea party and the debt deal: Fiscal ‘terrorists’ or principled heroes?

Local tea party activists Tuesday shrugged off Vice President Joe Biden’s reported use of the word “terrorist” – and the use by other Democrats of terms like “arsonists,” “saboteurs,” and “extortionists” – to vent anger at a debt-ceiling deal tha

Local tea party activists Tuesday shrugged off Vice President Joe Biden’s reported use of the word “terrorist” – and the use by other Democrats of terms like “arsonists,” “saboteurs,” and “extortionists” – to vent anger at a debt-ceiling deal that, largely because of the tea party, included no new taxes while mandating massive spending cuts.

“The tea party is just people wanting their voices to be heard … so it’s sad that Vice President Biden calls us terrorists for speaking our minds,” says Brad Scott, a tea party activist in Knoxville, Tenn. “But at the same time, I have to say, he’s giving great soundbites [to the Republicans] for the 2012 election.”

Barraged from its early days with invectives from the left, the tea party movement has steadily marched on, helping Republicans retake the House in 2010, and, this weekend, forcing the Republican leadership into a game of chicken with the White House – where President Obama blinked first, backing off his vow that increased tax revenues must be part of the debt deal.

“They discounted us to start with, then they started laughing at us, then people like Biden started attacking us – and in all that we see hope that maybe we might win in the end,” says Buddy Gray, a tea party organizer in Calhoun, Ga.

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Democrats’ reaction to the debt deal and tea party’s role did not end with Biden’s exchange, which his spokespeople have since denied despite multiple sourcing of the story by the news site Politico. Democrats argued that at the very point when the unemployed and marginalized need assistance and the economy needs more stimulus from Washington, the right is keen to rip the funds away, worsening the pain and dragging the country into a fiscal abyss.

“Consider what the towel-snapping Tea Party crazies have already accomplished,” writes Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. “They’ve changed the entire discussion. They’ve neutralized the White House. They’ve whipped their leadership into submission. They’ve taken taxes and revenues off the table. They’ve withered the stock and bond markets. They’ve made journalists speak to them as though they’re John Calhoun and Alexander Hamilton.”

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D) of Missouri called the deal a “sugar-coated Satan sandwich,” onto which House minority leader Nancy Pelosi piled on, “with a side of Satan fries.”

Democrats’ anger is understandable: The massive government spending cuts and lack of new revenue sources in the political deal that raises the debt ceiling by $2.4 trillion so the country can meet its fiduciary obligations hints at a shift of power and priorities away from the Democrats philosophy of “good” government growth toward the tea party’s goal of scaling back Washington spending and influence.

But political scientists say the tea party can’t take all the blame, nor all the plaudits, for the debt deal.

“I think this compromise simply reflects that [government] had gone artificially too far to the left after 2006 and 2008,” says James Campbell, a political scientist at SUNY’s University at Buffalo. “So this change looks all that more dramatic because it was brought back from that sort of temporarily left of center position to a further right of center position after 2010, which reflected a great deal of disappointment in Obama and Democrats in the first two years.”

Moreover, tea party activist Jack Smith of Ellijay, Ga., sees only a “partial victory” in the negotiations, especially since many tea partiers wanted Congress to hold the line on the debt limit in order to force immediate spending reductions in the federal budget.

Yet he acknowledged the debate put the tea party right in the center of Washington’s power sphere.

“It was very interesting that the deal couldn’t be made until they considered what the tea party might say or how they may react,” says Mr. Smith. “The unions … and other organizations have their lobbies; all the tea party really is, is a lobby of the people.”

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For some, that foundational shift has deeper, even global, roots.

“What the Left hasn’t grasped – and what Obama has – is that for the foreseeable future no political candidate or party will be able to increase public spending and win reelection,” writes Toby Young, a columnist for the conservative British newspaper the Daily Telegraph. “Socialist welfare programmes have become politically toxic. A sea change has taken place within the West’s most developed countries and [the] debt deal is a reflection of that.”

But potentially most worrisome for Democrats is evidence that Americans are increasingly concerned about the debt and back efforts to cut federal spending to bring the deficit under control.

Polls have been far from definitive on how Americans feel. A July 15 CBS Poll showed 69 percent of Americans opposed to raising the debt ceiling. But a more recent Pew poll showed that 60 percent of Americans favor a mix of spending cuts and tax increases to bring down the debt, with another 19 percent favoring solely cutting programs and another 8 percent favoring solely raising taxes without spending cuts.

“I think Democrats do have a big problem in that the mood of the country is now so positive about shrinking deficits and cutting federal spending that makes it extraordinarily hard for the standard Democratic message to prevail right now,” says Charles Franklin, a polling expert at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison.

But that’s not to say the tea party didn’t take hits in the polls by using its leverage in the House to push the country to the brink of defaulting on some of its obligations, which could have had dire economic consequences.

Another Pew survey found that 37 percent of respondents now have a less favorable opinion of the 60 tea party-backed members of Congress after the debt-ceiling standoff, the exact same percentage who said the same about Obama. At the same time, Pew says, 42 percent of Americans say they now view Republicans less favorably.

“Among Democrats, many voters already have negative feelings and that may grow among moderate Republicans and unaffiliated voters,” pollster Scott Rasmussen told the Guardian newspaper in England.

Polling sentiments, however, don’t stand in the way of Mr. Gray’s tea party convictions.

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“We’re not here to overthrow the government, we want to work within the system,” he says. “But if the system is beyond repair, who knows what’s next?”