04/22/2011 03:42 pm ET Updated Jun 22, 2011

Riding Herd on the Tea Party

Republican Congressional leaders are spending a lot more time than they planned riding herd on the Tea Party. Like cow punchers on a long cattle drive, they have to keep things moving. But they can't push too hard or let the herd get spooked or they could wind up with a stampede on their hands, and stampedes cannot be controlled. Even if the cattle are stampeding in the right direction, there's no telling what might get trampled. And good luck trying to stop the damned thing. About all you can do is hang on tight so you don't fall under any hooves.

The Tea Party movement was forged by highly partisan conservative interests and tempered with an explosive mixture of misinformation and suspicion. It has provided a critical mass to advance the traditional Republican agenda. Even the news media contributes by fueling it with news coverage all out of proportion to the 15 to 18% of the American public it represents, according to nonpartisan researchers' best estimates.

Putting the Tea Party out front was quite clever. The Republican establishment can let them appear to lead -- even turn Michele Bachmann loose on an unsuspecting world -- because having the whack jobs out there proposing to stop everything in its tracks makes the real Republican agenda look more reasonable by comparison. They let Paul Ryan chair the House Budget Committee and roll out a draconian budget proposal that moves to end Medicare, slash funding for Medicaid and starve federal education, transportation, law enforcement and justice and food safety initiatives. They let his plan ax services for the poor "to ensure that America's safety net does not become a hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency and dependency." And they let him cut the tax rate for top incomes from 35% to 25%. They know Senate Democrats and the White House will never go along with it.

But mainstream Republicans have to be careful with their rebellious foot soldiers. While they share an antigovernment philosophy, there are marked differences. The Tea Party is generally pissed off about the whole idea of a Republican democracy. Most of their anger is deeply embedded in ignorance and a muddled view of Constitutional government; what it does and how it works. It is a righteous anger with very little interest in facts.

Establishment Republicans, on the other hand, have a much more strategic view of dismantling Washington. They're primarily interested in ending regulatory authority over business, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and its job-killing obsession with breathable air and drinkable water, or nearly any part of the Interior Department, including the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (formerly the Minerals Management Service), the Office of Surface Mining, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and God knows -- the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And that's just Interior. The Department of Labor teems with anti-business enclaves: Labor-Management Standards, Employee Benefits, Workers' Comp, Mine Safety, the Women's Bureau, Veteran's Employment and Training, and one of the most evil -- OSHA. There are a host of financial and credit regulatory offices and agencies whose sole purpose seems to be to keep bankers and investors from making a decent profit. And that's before you get to the Food and Drug Administration or independent agencies like the National Labor Relations Board.

Indeed, when it comes to job-killing government scapegoats, Washington, DC is a target-rich environment. But mainstream Republicans know they could never generate support to blow up the whole place because the federal government does too many things people want and expect. It even does a few things Republicans like: tax breaks to businesses and investors, protection for American industries from foreign competition through duties and tariffs, and billions and billions in contracting opportunities every year, often with little or no real oversight.

For the most part, the Rs have tried to keep the lid on their social agenda and just talk about runaway spending and deficits. But occasionally, they just can't help themselves, and like an uncontrollable muscle spasm, traditional GOP 'values' will flare up: axing Planned Parenthood and NPR, dismantling Medicare and Medicaid, cutting federal support for public education, keeping the Environmental Protection Agency from protecting the environment, preventing defective product or medical malpractice lawsuits and ending any form of regulatory oversight.

Trying to wear so many faces is clearly starting to stress some Republican Congressional leaders. It's tough enough to pay fealty to the Tea Party's barely coherent "let's not have a government" approach while maintaining tight control over the real levers of power so they can advance their own agenda. And, at the same time they're patting TPers on the head and encouraging their scorched earth approach, Republican Congressional leaders have to appear to be negotiating with the Senate Democrats and the White House so they don't look like obstructionists. That frequently puts them squarely on both sides of the same issue, opposing things they just said they were for and supporting things they just said they oppose. And then on top of that, some people criticize when they try to demonstrate how less government works by telling women what they can and can't do with their reproductive organs.

All this is stressful because Republicans now have to take responsibility for what happens. Some are looking back fondly at being in the minority, which was quite liberating. When you're in the minority, you can be in favor of increased funding for everything the public likes and in favor of cutting government spending and in favor of balanced budgets all at the same time and never have to explain how. Being in the majority means you have to make it all work.

This governing stuff is harder than it looks.