10/09/2013 09:17 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Art of Stalemate

Why would a small band of Congressional tea party members lead the charge to shut down the government and play chicken with defaulting on the nation's debts?

To come to an answer you should read Democracy Corps' excellent memo about recent focus groups with tea party supporters, evangelicals and moderate Republicans.

The tea party is all but an official political party. It is interesting how the tea party movement has grown out of the Republican Party. The GOP was born after the Whig Party became fractured over the question of slavery.

What makes the tea party powerful? Its members...
• Are highly organized at the local level;
• Engage actively online and in social media;
• Carry a big microphone on talk radio;
• Practice incredible message discipline; and
• Raise money.

I'm reminded of the first rule in Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals:

Power is not only what you have, but what an opponent thinks you have. If your organization is small, hide your numbers in the dark and raise a din that will make everyone think you have many more people than you do.

The conservative movement has a vocal local base of organized tea party supporters. So, what fuels the passion driving tea party members?

The Democracy Corps' memo features a word cloud using words like, "Scared. Worried. Discouraged. Concerned." It is apparent that tea party supporters are being highly motivated by fear. Fear is a word I use carefully but there's no other way I can describe it.

Democracy Corps' focus groups show many tea party members and supporters believe President Obama is illegitimate, untruthful and untrustworthy. The Democracy Corps report also shows the tea party is driven by a deep core concern the United States is becoming an irreversible socialist welfare state that promotes government dependency and increased anti-Christian values. In short, the tea party believes our liberty is at stake.

For full disclosure, I'm a professional communicator and I worked with former Gov. Lawton Chiles and have been in and around Florida Democratic politics for the better part of the last three decades. No matter my personal politics, I am American and I'm deeply concerned for my country. House Speaker John Boehner is right. This isn't a damn game. The debate that is happening is one that matters.

National Public Radio's Morning Edition ran a feature story saying we are witnessing a high-stakes political game of chicken with our nation's future hanging in the balance. It's a titanic partisan struggle.

In watching this "Art of Stalemate" play out in front of our eyes, it's important to remember Sun Tzu's lessons from The Art of War. One point the great general makes is, "All warfare is based on deception." The same goes for politics. A long time ago, I learned in politics, you don't listen to what people say; you have to watch what they do.

When you watch the news, remember the messaging we're hearing from Texas Senator Ted Cruz and tea party members, while disseminated through the mass media, is not intended for a wide audience. The message is aimed straight at the organized, active and loud tea party base.


Because of the way redistricting works, there are very few competitive seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. That means the only danger to reelection for many members comes from facing a primary challenge in their own party. While the president must message to an entire nation, the tea party message is aimed at reaching its passionate and active base audience that is a deciding factor in Republican primaries. The results of national opinion polls and the opinion of newspaper editorial writers don't really matter much when you look at it through this prism. The tea party audience apparently doesn't care much for the mainstream media.

The Affordable Care Act, cleverly labeled "Obamacare" by conservative media, embodies everything the tea party fears. This is why polling shows more people oppose Obamacare than oppose the Affordable Care Act. Opposition to the president and Obamacare (his signature legislative accomplishment) fueled the tea party's rise in 2010. The president's defeat and repeal of the health care law became the overarching goals for Republicans in the 2012 elections.

After being told by radio talk show hosts and Fox News pundits for four years that they were going to bring the "Pelosi and Obama express" to a halt, and polling that showed Republican nominee Mitt Romney had a realistic chance to win the presidency, the tea party woke up last November to facing four more years under President Barack Obama.

Shortly after they witnessed Washington politicians pass January's "fiscal cliff" deal that many considered to be an irresponsible tax increase. Tea party trust in Speaker Boehner suffered as a result.

To remain influential in the national dialogue, political parties need victories. Victories lead to funding which leads to more victories. After the beating it took in the national race, the tea party badly needed to put points on the board in 2013.

The stories of IRS investigations of conservative groups, the Edward Snowden NSA revelations and the Syrian situation tripped up the beginning of President Obama's second term.

The tea party was emboldened.

Then came the shutdown, which Conservatives had wisely planned for. In February 2013, the Conservative Action Project wrote a "Memo to the Movement" that laid out the strategy for a potential shutdown.

Now, there's a struggle to frame the debate. Conservatives say they are simply asking the president to have a "conversation" with them and negotiate. Possibly remembering Sun Tzu's admonition that "peace proposals unaccompanied by a sworn covenant indicate a plot," Democrats respond by demanding the House leadership to allow an "up-or-down vote" on clean resolutions to fund the government and pay its bills.

In their attacks to hang the blame for the shutdown on House Speaker Boehner and Senator Cruz, Democrats are also employing one of Alinsky's rules, "Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, polarize it. Don't try to attack abstract corporations or bureaucracies. Identify a responsible individual. Ignore attempts to shift or spread the blame."

It's an old-fashioned impasse. Thetea party members appear united. So do Democrats in Congress. Moderate Republicans appear to be the swing vote.

With the debt ceiling now coming into focus, an existential struggle is set up between the tea party's passion to save America by dismantling the welfare state (starting with the Affordable Care Act) and progressives who want to protect government lifelines like the Affordable Care Act, Medicare and Social Security. Could a journey across the debt ceiling Rubicon mean deep entitlement cuts in order to pay the federal government's debts?

As the tea party members of the House Republican Conference appear to be a driving force behind the stalemate strategy, Sun Tzu would caution Speaker Boehner to be wary saying, "When the common soldiers are too strong and their officers too weak, the result is insubordination."

Earlier this year, there were rumblings that tea party members had problems with Speaker Boehner. Recognizing this, when the crisis is over -- and it will end -- depending on the outcome, in the near future, a bona fide member of the tea party could become Speaker of the House and second in the line of succession to the presidency.

Is there a way out of this stalemate? "When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard," Sun Tzu writes. " In hemmed-in situations, you must resort to stratagem. In desperate position, you must fight."

The stakes are high.

For inspiration in this moment, I hope our leaders learn from our history and look back to a previous time of intense national polarization. As President Lincoln reminded us as he closed his first inaugural as the nation faced Civil War:

In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to "preserve, protect, and defend it.

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?