Noted in advance; the left isn’t stupid. Keep that in mind as we go through this.
The Tea Parties are an odd phenomenon in American politics; they’re a mass movement that more or less defies conventional party labels.
When I spoke at the September 17 “Constitution Day” rally at the Minnesota State Capitol last fall, I asked people to raise their hands if the word I mentioned described them. I asked for Republicans to raise their hands (a little over half); Libertarians (10-ish percent); DFLers (a smattering, maybe 20 people, whom I urged to not feel bashful); Ron Paul supporters (a good 20%); people who’d rather pound a nail into their forehead than vote for Ron Paul (a giggly 20% or so); people who were sick of all the parties (maybe 30%).
The point – then, as now – was that the Tea Party movement, amorphous and leaderless as it was and remains, wasn’t a phenomenon tied to particular political party. It was more in line with the GOP’s traditional limited-government emphasis, but for many Tea Partiers the burden is on the GOP to prove that it’s repented of its free-spending ways from 2000 through 2008.
Long story short; the GOP has to earn the votes of an awful lot of Tea Partiers.
Kenneth Vogel in Politico notes the challenge Republicans face with tea partiers:
Across the country, conservative tea party activists — many new to politics and unaffiliated with, if not averse to, the Republican Party — are increasingly finding themselves the target of intense GOP courting headed into the critical 2010 midterm elections.
Republican National Committee Michael Steele’s plans on meeting Tuesday with about 50 tea party leaders. The California GOP chairman recently trained tea partiers on political organizing and is planning a party-sponsored rally. The South Carolina GOP has a resource-sharing agreement with tea party groups. The North Dakota party chairman hosted a tea party-GOP rally Friday and is urging fellow state chairs to do the same.
But for tea partiers, who from the early days of their movement wanted to be heard and taken seriously, it’s a little bit of careful what you wish for.
Some have welcomed the attention, forging tentative alliances or at least opening channels of communication, usually to intense criticism from fellow tea partiers. But most have either proudly spurned Republican advances or approached their suitors apprehensively, keenly aware that while Republican resources and infrastructure could both boost the tea party movement to a new level of effectiveness, the GOP’s tainted brand could also jeopardize the independence that is part of their populist appeal.
In a sense, the Tea Parties are exactly what the GOP has needed for most of the past decade; a return to solid fiscal conservatism as a means of turning the nation around, while leaving social issues as a big black box to be decided by the individual.
Of course, everyone knows social issues are the bedrock issue for another huge block of conservatives, the Evangelicans without whom, says conventional wisdom, the GOP faces a very uphill climb.
The ideal, for the GOP, is to follow the Reagan model; to make peace with those you agree with on the big issues – at this point, taxes and spending – and live and let live on the other issues. The GOP, at a high level, seems to be learning this.
And this terrifies the left; the only thing that is holding the right back is its predilection for shooting itself in the foot over the real-but-overblown divide between fiscal and social conservatives.
The left knows this. That’s why, in the immediate aftermath of the Massachusetts special election, you saw a wave of leftymedia/leftblog postings, starting with Media Matter and radiating out to their subjects, saying “ReThugLiCons just elected a pro-choicer! They are teh Heppocreet!”
They know that if the various factions on the right can agree, at worst, to disagree on social issues, that we will be well-nigh unstoppable in 2010 and, if Obama/Reid/Pelosi stay their current course, possible 2012 as well.
Which is why you can expect a constant drumbeat of media coverage of libertarian Tea Partiers who don’t care one iota, at least in terms of electoral politics, about abortion or gay marriage. It’s a considered effort to drive a wedge between evangelicals and Tea Partiers.
There are two approaches the GOP needs to take to this.
- The Tea Party is a sign that the conservative movement has grown up and agreed to disagree. The New Jersey Gubernatorial and Massachussets Senator elections showed that conservatism has learned how to prioritize, knowing that…
- …a fiscal conservative tax-and-spending hawk who has a “nuanced” position on abortion is going to be a friendly representative for single-issue pro-life evangelicals than a Democrat who is wrong on taxes and is in the bag for NOW and Planned Parenthood. Indeed, it just might be a sign of what is, for the left, the unthinkable; that Evangelicals are growing beyond single-issue voting. And that’d be very bad news for the Dems.
And so look for the Dems to beat on this supposed, potential wedge for all they’re worth in the next eight months. The best hope they have of turning back the Tea Party surge is by turning it against itself; by pitting fiscally-conservative Republicans against unaligned fiscal-conservatives over what is, for purposes of attacking the current orgy of spending, a side-issue.