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For Tea Party, Shutdown Is Worth The Pain

Preston Bates considers the budget stalemate a good return on investment.

Bates is executive director of Liberty for All, a libertarian-leaning superPAC that last year spent more than $3 million helping to elect Republican congressmen such as Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Kerry Bentivolio of Michigan.

Those two are among the core group of House members refusing to support any deal that would reopen the government without delaying, defunding or destroying the Affordable Care Act, the health care law also known as Obamacare.

That stance has pleased many conservatives — libertarians and members of Tea Party-oriented groups — who are willing to trade the temporary pain of a shutdown for a serious debate about deficit spending and Obamacare, which Bates terms a "disaster" and a "job killer."

Bates blames President Obama and other Democrats such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for the shutdown, which he terms a "political loser." But he is pleased congressional Republicans have stood their ground.

"I'm absolutely happy, and so are libertarians everywhere, that people are standing firm," Bates says. "At the end of the day, we need to continue to have a clash of ideas."

Parallel Tracks

The shutdown debate has demonstrated, yet again, that in an era of polarization, Americans are living in parallel political universes.

Democrats, led by President Obama, complain that the House GOP is holding federal operations hostage by refusing to accept that the ACA is the settled law of the land.

Polls show most Americans agree with them. Even many who dislike the law don't like the shutdown.

According to a Fox News poll released Thursday, 67 percent of those surveyed believe that the government shutdown is "definitely a bad thing." Among those who identified themselves with the Tea Party, however, 71 percent thought it "could be a good thing."

For Tom Zawistowski, who directs the Tea Party in Portage County, Ohio, blocking Obamacare is "a simple, righteous vote for liberty."

The fact that 800,000 federal workers have been furloughed is proof to him of just how bloated the government has become. "In our world, if you're nonessential, you don't have a job," he says.

He says that in the private sector, workers are losing jobs because of the costs and regulations associatedwith the health care law, which he asserts will drive doctors out of the medical profession.

For years now, he points out, congressional Republicans have maintained that the law will destroy the U.S. economy. It's only right, then, that they're doing everything in their power to block it.

"If you put a gun to my head and said, 'Vote for something that will destroy our economy,' it would be better that I died than I vote to destroy our economy and doom future generations," Zawistowski says.

Broader Economic Effects

He dismisses the notion that a possible breach of the debt ceiling would do even greater harm to the economy. Noting that the dollar is losing value against the euro, he says that the full faith and credit of the United States has already been harmed by deficit spending and the printing of "phony money."

"They should have a healthy debate about the debt ceiling and make the healthy choices about what should be cut," says Eric Wilson, director of the Kentucky 9/12 Project, a conservative group that believes in restoring the nation's founding principles.

Wilson says this argument should have happened a lot sooner. He's not particularly worried about the effects either of a partial shutdown or a potential default.

"The world didn't come to an end Oct. 1," he says. "We're still functioning, business is still operating, essential functions are still happening."

If anything, Wilson worries that politicians are playing their usual games, not standing firm out of principle but because they perceive potential political gain in their districts.

"A few people stand up and stand for principles, those are people who people rally behind," he says. "You can't find that anymore in politics, from the dogcatcher to the president."

Heroes On The Right

From their very beginnings, Obama-era protest groups such as the Tea Party and the 9/12 Project have been confronted with a dilemma. The political system in America rewards compromise, which means politicians they favor have lost winnable elections and some legislative battles.

But despite occasional setbacks, those groups resist the politics of compromise, which they view as capitulation, at least when it comes to issues such as deficit spending and Obamacare.

"The government has no business in the business of health care, and this is what it's all about," says Toby Marie Walker, president of the Tea Party in Waco, Texas. "I'm glad it's the center of debate, especially as it rolls out and people are seeing what we've been saying for three years — it isn't free, it isn't affordable and it's very complicated."

Walker says that the sky isn't falling owing to the government shutdown, which she calls a "slowdown." She's mad at her state's senior GOP senator, John Cornyn, for not fully supporting his fellow Republican Ted Cruz's efforts to use the shutdown as a tool to block Obamacare.

"The majority of Texans elected Ted Cruz to do exactly what he is doing," Walker says. "We wanted to send someone who would go up there and give us a voice."

She notes that Cornyn's Facebook page is filled with critical comments. "TX knows a lying traitor. Do you think we don't see you as the lying yellow dog that you are??? STEP OFF RINO," reads one fairly typical comment posted Thursday.

Melissa Clouthier, a conservative blogger in Texas, attended a Tea Party meeting outside Houston on Tuesday. She was struck by the angry comments directed toward Cornyn, while Cruz was being heaped with praise.

For this particular group, nothing made them happier than the fact that Cruz had put the Affordable Care Act at the center of debate about what the federal government should be doing.

"The Tea Party folks are happy that someone is even voicing a principle that should be defended," Clouthier says. "The overwhelming feeling that they were glad about is that a Republican stood up and stands for something."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.