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Gary Younge
The Tea Party tail wags the Republican dog, but it's Obama who's dragged off course

The recently elected Republican governor of Maine, Paul LePage, is no art critic. Indeed subtlety and nuance seem to elude him at almost every turn. While campaigning he promised a group of fishermen he'd tell Barack Obama "to go to hell", and responded to one reporter's questions with a demand to "stop the bullshit". When LePage, a Tea Party candidate, heard that the country's oldest civil rights organisation, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, had complained about his refusal to attend their Martin Luther King Day function, he told them to "kiss my butt".

So it was a shock that his first major dispute revolved around the role of art in the public sphere. Last month LePage ordered the removal of a mural depicting scenes from the state's labour history from Maine's labour department, claiming it made businessmen feel uncomfortable. Predictably, the unions objected. But so did eight Republican senators, who penned a letter to the Portland Press Herald chiding him. "We are not the enemy of labour and labour is certainly not an enemy to us," they wrote. By the time the federal government asked him to reimburse the $60,000 it had given to sponsor the mural, LePage's fickle temper was beginning to conflict with his desire for fiscal rectitude.

LePage was no consensus candidate. He won the governorship in a five-way race with only 38% of the vote, and by just a 2% margin. His greatest achievement since taking office appears to be becoming an even more divisive figure than he was during the campaign. Not only do 80% of Democrats disapprove of his performance, so do 50% of independents and 52% of women – the very groups Republicans need to win back a state like Maine. The state has two moderate Republican senators and Obama's approval ratings hover at just 51%.

The extent of Republican hubris, the potential fallout from their overreach and the scale of electoral volatility is beginning to become clear just five months after the mid-term rout. What struck some voters as the single-minded clarity of rightwing Republicans in opposition now strikes even more as simple-minded simplicity in government. The number of those with an unfavourable view of the Tea Party has doubled in the last year to 50%. And Sarah Palin's negatives have never been higher. Having gained power, the right are losing influence.

Challenges from unions and a broad swath of progressive activists suggest their agenda lacks consensus not only in society as a whole, but even within the Republican party. The only force, it seems, that can rescue the Republican right from imploding under the weight of its ideological fervour are the Democrats. And with Obama at the helm, that is precisely what they are doing.

The nature of the overreach was clear last week when Republicans almost forced a government shutdown because they wanted to cut funding to women's health programmes and prevent the enforcement of clean air standards.

The consequences have been most evident in Wisconsin, where the governor's attempts to do away with collective bargaining met stiff and sustained resistance. Last week in an election for a state supreme court justice, Republicans appear to have eked out a slender victory (Democrats may contest the results) against a Democrat who wasn't supposed to have a prayer. Meanwhile, the seat on the Milwaukee county executive left vacant by the governor was won easily by a Democrat.

It's not difficult to divine the source of Republican confidence. Their victories in November were emphatic. Nationally, it was the biggest swing against a governing party since 1948. Locally, the GOP took 11 governorships – five in key swing states – and 19 state legislatures from Democrats.

Nor is it difficult to see why that confidence is misplaced. For those who mistook November as a mandate for slashing budgets, repealing healthcare and attacking unions are now becoming victims of their own wishful thinking. A CNN poll on election night revealed that when asked whom they blamed for the state of the economy, Americans said bankers (34%), George Bush (29%) and Obama (24%). Polls show people are far more worried about jobs and inflation than they are about the budget deficit. Broadly, people didn't vote for austerity, they voted against unemployment or they didn't vote.

The Republican victory in November would better be described as a Democratic defeat in which the bottom fell out of the coalition that carried Obama to victory, as youth, black, Latino and progressive voters stayed at home. Sadly, on the week when he relaunched his re-election campaign, the president seems to be doing everything in his power to demotivate them from turning out again.

For if Wisconsin has shown how Republicans can be forced into retreat through collective action, then last week's budget negotiations illustrated how they can be emboldened by capitulation. Once again Obama absented himself from the debate, thereby allowing Republicans to frame the debate and ceding many of the substantive points. Then he clinched a deal that will do least for those who elected him, and declared victory.

While he lacks a clear ideology, this is most definitely his style. Like a canny long-distance runner, he hangs back and lets the pack exhaust itself before stirring. The distance he allows to build between him and the frontrunner at times seems unbridgeable. Since he does not set the pace, the terrain on which he joins battle is chosen for him by others. Then, finally, comes the sprint – the final dash to the finish line in which he just manages to reach the tape first. But when he gets to the podium the medal is not gold but tin. His presidency thus far is littered with partial victories. Not quite universal healthcare; troops not yet out of Iraq; a stimulus bill that coincided with rising unemployment.

Having campaigned in the declarative, Obama governs in the subjunctive. "Yes we can" has become "Perhaps we could have". Having evoked the late June Jordan's phrase "We are the ones we have been waiting for" on the stump, he now leads with the attitude "We are the ones who will wait for whoever might join us."

So it was with healthcare reform and tax cuts for the rich. So it has been with the budget. Each time he has punched below his weight.

His original proposal was a mild stimulus that would add $40bn to 2010 funding levels. The country ended up with a cut of $38.5bn – the largest spending cuts in history, slashing budgets for community programmes, infrastructure investment and healthcare provision, among other things. Left to his own devices, the Republican House Speaker, John Boehner, would have settled for less. But the Tea Party would not allow it.

This was by no means inevitable. There is no question that Obama had to compromise, but the deal that he eventually struck did not reflect the balance of power either in the polity – where Democrats have the Senate and the presidency – or the country. With the Tea Party dictating terms to the Republican leadership, who then got Obama to blink first, the tail wagged the dog and then the dog dragged the owner into a ditch.

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