Tea Party: Right-wing 'nutters' or mature adults?

Speaker John Boehner and Republican colleagues, 25 July Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Speaker John Boehner has the Tea Party driving his party's position on the debt issue

My last blog before I went on holiday was about the debt crisis. It's still going on. President Obama is to address the nation this evening.

One of the most interesting interventions while I was away was from the UK's Liberal Democrat cabinet minister Vince Cable. He said the world's economy was being put in peril by "a few right-wing nutters" in the American Congress.

If they are nutters, they are remarkably successful ones.

The truth is that Tea Party-backed Republicans are winning this fight over raising the debt ceiling.

It is far from over. But they've already won the argument that America's debt has to be dealt with. They've wrung really deep cuts from Mr Obama.

They've probably stopped Democrats from putting up taxes as part of any final package. It is a pretty straight ideological fight between left and right. So why the charge of nuttiness ?

It's that Tea Party, again.

'Feet to the fire'

The reason House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner and the Republican leadership is being so hard-line is because the Tea Party put the iron in their soul.

Those Republicans who took control of the House last year believe they were elected on a wave of popular revulsion at the size of the national debt and government spending.

They may be reading too much into their mandate, but they think that going back, that accepting a hike in debt with nothing in return, would be betraying their voters.

A radio host on Wisconsin's WTMJ, a conservative talk radio station, James T Harris, told me the Republican leaders have to do a tough deal. What would happen if they agreed to something his callers disliked?

"Their heads would explode. Right now my people do not trust anybody who wants to spend more of our money. Our Tea Party members are holding their feet to the fire, if they come out with a deal where we feel double-crossed they'll be gone in 2012."

But some of the Tea Party's opponents, even those outside the British cabinet, do think their behaviour is extreme. The White House says they want to balance the budget "on the backs of seniors and the middle classes".

The current Republican plan has more than a little party politics in it. The debt ceiling would be dealt with in stages: a bit now, a bit next year.

This would stop Obama swallowing the problem whole and getting it out of the way before the election. The Republicans would make sure it repeated on him throughout 2012.

But the charge that they are a few chocolate bars short of a fruit cake is because some of them see dealing with the debt as more pressing than borrowing enough money to continue governing.

That's even though many think that if the US defaulted on its debt for the first time in its history, the markets would melt down and the world would be tipped into another recession..

I put this to Mat Kibbe from Freedomworks, the Washington-based group that backs the Tea Party. He said: "The only adults in the room are the Tea Party freshmen that are forcing an adult conversation about debt, and the activists who are insisting the government stops spending money it doesn't have.

"If we didn't have that, if we didn't force Washington, DC to have that conversation, that would be a bigger crisis, a crisis we couldn't fix. They are essentially watching the theatre burn and they are yelling at us for having the audacity to say its on fire."

More when the President has spoken.