Sunday, September 26, 2010

What is the Tea Party?

What is the Tea Party? The movement has been evolving rapidly over the last 18 months. It was a potent force in the Republican primaries, and gets lot of coverage and commentary. But what is it? And where did it come from?

It’s not a party. That’s the first thing Tea Party members and sympathisers will tell you. You may think that with a name like Tea Party that they are, or aspire to be a political party. But they aren’t and don’t. It’s more of an advocacy group (think NRA or - but less structured) that is loud, vague, and angry and doesn’t actually advocate for any particular polices (other than “not taking it anymore” - which they support).

An early invocation of the term “Tea Party” came from Rick Santelli’s bizarre rant from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Unless you’re setting it on fire, the CME seems a particularly inappropriate place to start a populist movement. But somehow the image of a bunch of post-bailout financial traders (which Santelli calls “a pretty good statistical cross-section of America”) railing against the injustice of federal intervention struck a nerve. Santelli’s complaint was that the government was bailing out homeowners. As millions of former-homeowners learned during their foreclosure, no such program existed. But a movement was born, and with it the rich Tea Party tradition of being incensed over purely imaginary federal programs.

Sensing another opportunity to rally gullible people angry at Democrats, Fox News quickly got in on the act and put its stamp on the young movement. The network sponsored and promoted Glen Beck’s 9/12 project, giving the Tea Party national exposure. The nation was not impressed. The obvious extremism on display gave rise to the impression that Tea Party members tend to be racist or insane.

Since those early outings, the movement has controlled its message a little better. Local groups appear to be somewhat more reasonable. The Tea Party has gained strength an pulled together a powerful coalition.

The Tea Party has been effective at re-branding of the Republican Party. They’ve got all the energy in the party and have had an impressive show of force. Even establishment candidates like John McCain have had to dance to their tune in order to win the primary. They’ve been able to bring back a lot of conservative voters that bailed after the Bush years. Being a ‘Tea Party Patriot’ running as a Republican is much cooler than being a ‘Bush Republican’. And they can rope in and energize the independent conservatives and libertarians.

Andrew Sullivan has described the difference between how the Tea Party members see themselves and conventional Republicans:

I think what the tea-partiers would say is that they are for real - that, unlike Bush, they won't spend the country into oblivion, that they won't bail out the banks, that they won't pass unpaid-for entitlements, that they actually will make sure that abortion is illegal, that they will round up illegal immigrants and enforce the border, and will not pretend that we are not fighting Islam in a civilizational war. And that they will refuse to raise taxes even if it means the most radical dismantlement of the entitlement state since the New Deal. 
This attitude has swept through the Republican party. The question remains whether it will be popular with the rest of America. As much as they’ve been a force in the Republican primaries, it’s not clear they are going to be so helpful in the general election. Any group that thinks the likes of Glen Beck, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann are to be taken seriously is going have hard time getting themselves taken seriously by the American people. In the 2010 mid-term, where energy and base turn-out trump, they’ll be about a wash. After that, it’s not clear what the Tea Party does for a second act.

I would like to hope the Tea Party will pull the Republicans away from meddling in social issues and towards some actual fiscal conservatism. But real deficit reduction means taking on tax policy (and not just cutting taxes), controlling health care costs, and reducing defense. The Tea Party doesn’t offer serious proposals on any of that.

Actually, the Tea Party doesn’t really offer any policy proposals. They mainly like to complain about Democrats, say “freedom” a lot, and talk about the Founding Fathers. It is telling that the few members who seem to have policy ideas got very quiet about those ideas very fast after winning their primary. This suggests they are well aware that their actual plans may not be so popular with the general public.

The issues that motivate the Tea Party- health care reform, TARP, economic stimulus - are not the issues that will be confronting newly elected Tea Party members when they take office in 2011. TARP and the stimulus funds are spent and there seems to be little appetite in either party for more. Health care reform will continue and there may a fight over funding and implementaion. But full repeal will be unpopular and impossible.

The actual battles of the next congress will over deficit reduction, tax policy, immigration, the Defense of Marriage Act, Afghanistan, and corporate campaign disclosure. In theory, a libertarian-aligned Tea Party would be more sympathetic to the President’s positions on these issues than the conventional Republicans. In practice, we’re likely to find that the movement’s contempt for President Obama overrides any (as yet unseen) pragmatic impulse. Gridlock will get worse, even on issues when there is general agreement.

Once a few Tea Party members are elected they’ll have to take votes and support legislation. They won’t be able to stay in the realm of dreamy platitudes. If they want to remain relevant in 2012 they’ll have to do something to improves the lives of the American people. Since they’ve pledged not work with the President on any issue, it’s hard to see how they’ll do that. Unless Democratic voters get energized and vote this November, we’re about to find out.

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