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The Boston Globe

Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

The Tea Party boomerangs on the GOP

It’s the most riveting political story in the nation: The battle for the heart and soul of the once grand old party — and what that fight will do for the GOP’s national reputation.

Coasting on their image from the Reagan-Bush era, Republicans have long prided themselves on being the nation’s daddy party. But in the aftermath of this latest bout of budgetary brinksmanship, the GOP’s congressional wing instead looks like a sandbox full of Tea Party temper-tantrum tykes.

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Still, though the Tea Partiers drove the tactics, the party establishment helped create the mind set behind those maneuvers. In that regard, this saga is similar to that of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster.

Except that this tale is far from over. Although a new CNN poll says that a majority of Americans now think that GOP control of the House is bad for the country, the party’s hyper-partisans are anything but cowed.

Republican Senator Ted Cruz, a facile populist with little fealty to the facts, hasn’t ruled out trying the same thing again. Jim DeMint, the former South Carolina senator who now heads the Heritage Foundation, took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to argue that in shutting down the government, conservatives fought the good fight. Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, said the deal was “a full surrender” by Republicans.

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Compare that to last time around. Back in 1996, when Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole said enough was enough and stepped in to end the House-initiated government shutdown, he was widely hailed as a governmental grownup.

This time around, after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (finally) helped craft the deal that ended this shutdown, he became the object of conservative ire. The Senate Conservatives Fund promptly announced that it would try to defeat the Kentucky Republican, whom they accuse of “refusing to fight for conservative principles.”

And yet, it’s hard to feel sorry for establishment Republicans. Too many have been too timid for too long in the face of Tea Party absolutism. Forced to choose by the shutdown, they finally mustered the courage to say no to the party’s far right. Yet that push-back challenged only the tactics. GOP congressional leaders have largely enabled the Tea Partiers’ perfervid anti-Obama politics.

Take the short-term deficits, for example. Non-partisan fiscal analysts agree that our recent succession of trillion-dollar-plus budget imbalances were caused mostly by a cratered economy, which crunched revenues. Now that the economy is improving, the deficits are declining. In fiscal year 2015, the budget gap is projected to drop to about $400 billion, or about 2.1 percent of GDP. Tax hikes and spending cuts have also helped, but just as a recessionary economy was the principal factor in driving the deficits up, a rebounding economy has been the biggest factor in reducing them.

But though the problem was always mostly economic in origin, congressional Republicans were happy to feed the myth that the deficits were caused by Obama’s spending. (Longer-term deficits remain a problem that needs addressing; the budget gaps will start increasing again as more and more baby boomers retire and tap Medicare and Medicaid.)

Obamacare has spurred the same kind of irresponsible Republican rhetoric. Now, it goes without saying that the Affordable Care Act’s website issues are a big embarrassment and continuing problem for an administration whose competence level isn’t what it should be after almost five years in office.

But a poorly performing website doesn’t means that the ACA itself is or will be a disaster. Nor is it honest to portray a program built around private health care plans as a socialist takeover of health care. Or to treat the law as something that will irreparably harm American health care; the United States, after all, spends far more of GDP than other industrialized nations, without getting demonstrably better care.

Still, Republican congressional leaders have been happy to encourage those notions as part of their strategy to oppose anything and everything Obama proposes. So the grass roots are now on fire with a fervor that treats any and all compromise as surrender — and the party establishment is feeling the heat of that blaze that they helped kindle.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.

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