WASHINGTON– Sen. Jim Bunning’s (R-Ky.) blockade on extending temporarily unemployment benefits put the Tea Party movement in an unfamiliar position. Instead of nudging the Republican Party to take a stand, activists watched a politician pick an anti-government fight they didn’t even know existed.
“We’ve just been so consumed with the health care issue,” said Jennifer Hulsey, a Georgia-based leader of the American Grassroots coalition. “People are only now starting to take a stand on this.”
After a slow weekend, said Hulsey, the group only developed a position on Bunning’s blockade during a Tuesday night conference call, shortly after Bunning relented. Other conservative activists and Tea Party groups also took their time in responding — but in the end, most of them got behind Bunning. What Democrats saw as a perfect opportunity to turn American opinion against Republican obstructionism in the Senate became, with only a few exceptions, an opportunity for conservatives to endorse a slowdown of Senate business. Late Tuesday, when Bunning announced a hold on all pending nominations, activists were confident that Democrats would blink first in a conflict that the majority party could have ended on day one, had they been honest about what they were doing and willing to invoke cloture.
“Senator Jim Bunning has taken a courageous stand, to hold the Democrats — in fact, all of us — accountable for the the things we say we believe,” said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). Bunning, argued DeMint, was making a point about Democratic hypocrisy on “pay-as-you-go” rules, and Democrats were spinning unfair scare stories about Americans left without unemployment benefits.
“I admire the courage of the junior senator from Kentucky,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who in his role leading the National Republican Senatorial Committee is tasked with electing a Republican to replace the retiring Bunning. “It’s not fun to be accused of having no compassion for the people who are out of work.”
The conservative enthusiasm for Bunning echoed in his state, where he was once so unpopular that Republicans not-so-quietly urged him to step aside. All three of the Republicans seeking to replace Bunning endorsed his stance, starting with frontrunner Rand Paul. At a rally in Lexington, pro-Bunning activists stood with Paul and chanted “Pay Go, Pay Go.” That chant revealed how, after a fitful start, Bunning’s explanation for his blockade — he is not opposing all aid, just that which would add to the deficit — had trickled down to the conservative base.
Like the Tea Party organizers, Democrats and liberal activists didn’t anticipate Bunning’s blockade. But unlike their opposites on the right, they had been looking for a fight to demonstrate how Republicans are gumming up their legislation. And in the search for a villain, Bunning seemed to come from central casting. Never a fan of political etiquitte, Bunning responded to a criticism from freshman Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) with a crisp insult: “Tough shit.” When ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl attempted to buttonhole Bunning with questions, the senator made a rude gesture and physically prevented him from entering an elevator.
“We need this to end,” wrote Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in a column for the Huffington Post. “Debate big differences. Disagree. Use the filibuster when big matters of principle hang in the balance — and sometimes they do. But at the end of the day, Washington has to function — people are counting on it.”
Conservative activists hesitated in responding to that spin. But by Tuesday, when the stunt was reaching an end after four days, the smart take was that Democrats were intentionally letting Bunning act out in order to make a political point. Conservatives like Erick Erickson of RedState took obvious delight in being pilloried by liberal organizations like Media Matters when they spoke out for Bunning. In a series of blog posts, Erickson argued that Democrats could have stopped Bunning’s filibuster on day one, but had instead sparked an ideological argument that conservatives should be happy to have.
“Reid is doing this for a photo op,” Erickson told TWI, arguing that the majority leader was misleading voters by letting Bunning’s stand be portrayed as a filibuster. “He has the votes. It’s just one senator [who] said he will not go along with unanimous consent without knowing where the money is coming from.”
By the time Bunning abandoned his quest, that was conventional wisdom among conservatives. “Liberals think they have discovered a winning issue – conservative obstructionism,” wrote conservative activist Gary Bauer in a daily e-mail message to supporters. “Today, all three major networks tuned in to the Senate’s proceedings to broadcast live coverage of Senator Bunning blocking the $10 billion ‘emergency’ spending bill. This one appropriation is not newsworthy, but the Left thinks Bunning is making its case as to why socialized medicine must be passed using budget reconciliation rules. This is a perfect example of how the media distort what conservatives in Washington are doing and how they manipulate the news.”
According to Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, the furor over Bunning was the latest in a line of liberal campaigns to make conservatives like Rush Limbaugh the face of obstructionism, and the reason that Democrats couldn’t get bills through the Senate.
“For all the talk of Obama as some kind of messiah, I see a bunch of guys trying to score junior high school tactical wins,” said Norquist. “They keep setting up cheap shots against these straw men. If setting up a phony fight with Limbaugh didn’t work, you think a fight with Jim Bunning will? Who’s Jim Bunning? You have to explain this to voters who haven’t even heard of him.”
Not everyone in the grassroots, given some time to watch the strategy, agreed with Bunning.
“He comes across as a hardass, don’t you think?” mused Robin Stublen, a Florida Tea Party activist who’s often critical of Republican efforts to court the movement. “Some of his argument was legitimate. Some of it was grandstanding.”
That kind of criticism, however, was a distinct minority.
“Some weak-willed Republicans don’t want the GOP to be cast as the heartless Scrooges taking away ‘temporary’ unemployment benefits that have become enshrined permanently,” wrote conservative blogger and columnist Michelle Malkin. “If Republicans can’t stand up and question the permanent Nanny State and can’t point out the unintended consequences of liberal intentions without folding like card tables, what good are they?”
“I’m glad someone up there is finally asking the question, how are we going to pay for this?” said Judson Phillips, whose Tea Party Nation group sponsored the National Tea Party Convention. “In my family, when our income is down, that is the first question we ask. I don’t care how important the spending is. That question must be answered.”