Monday, February 8, 2010

Republicans, the Tea Party, and 2010

While Republicans will likely make inroads on the House Democrat's 79-seat majority in 2010, there is plenty of data that suggests it will be mitigated and fall short of the revolution that some radio and television personalities believe is just around the corner. A Smart Politics analysis of U.S. House election returns finds that while the GOP is historically likely to pick up seats in the 2010 midterms, next November's election might look a lot closer to (though falling short of) the 2002 midterms or the 2004 general elections (in which the party in power, the GOP, held and even gained a few seats) rather than the 1994 or 2006 midterms (in which the party in power lost substantially – 54 seats for the Democrats and 31 seats for the Republicans respectively).

During the past few months, several political pundits and Washington, D.C. insiders are already projecting significant Republican gains in 2010.In late August, Fox News contributor Dick Morris gleefully predicted Democrats could lose 100 seats: "It's a disaster for the Democrats. You could literally, at this point, see 100 seats changing in the House."

The Tea Party developed last year in protest to what its supporters say was overspending in Washington – by both Republicans and Democrats – following the stimulus bill, the bank bailouts and President Obama's budget. As it expanded, the protests became more partisan in nature, and the Tea Party established itself as an uprising to the far right of the Republican Party. Over the year, the Tea Party grew into a loose link of groups around the country, protesting the bank bailout, taxes in general, socialism (regardless of their own Social Security and Medicare services), and having a black president.

"The anger over alleged fiscal irresponsibility in Washington is shared by a wider spectrum of voters, including independents," said John Avlon, author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America. Republicans are trying to co-opt the Tea Party. Democrats are trying to marginalize it. And people with personal aspirations – whether financial or political – are trying to take advantage of it. For example, the Tea Party Express, a conservative bus tour that crisscrossed the country last year, was run from inside a Republican political consulting firm owned by Dick Armey who recruited older, angry libertarian-types and bused them to various town hall meetings to act as an “angry constituency”.

But the same independent voters who are reacting against fiscal “irresponsibility” are also reacting against the polarization of the two major parties. In contrast, the Tea Partiers wanted Republicans and Democrats to become more polarized, Avlon said. The Tea Party groups are trying to flex their muscle and move the Republican Party further to the right. While the more radical activists made headlines, the voices of frustrated independent voters were being heard across the country. The White House said Republican Scott Brown's win in last month's Massachusetts Senate election was "a wake-up call." While Brown captured the support of the Tea Party, he also won over the state's independent voters. And he has made it clear that he is ‘his own Republican’ – as in no party owns him. (We’ll see if he can hold to that once he is in Washington for several months.)

"If the 'Birthers' [those who say Obama wasn't born in the U.S.] and the Tea Party people win most of the primaries in the Republican Party, it may not yield much of a Republican victory in the general election," said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate at American University. He pointed to New York's election last November as an example of how the Tea Party's support for more conservative candidates could hurt Republicans in the upcoming elections. Last November, Tea Party groups received credit for affecting the outcome of a special election for New York's 23rd Congressional District. Local Republican leaders backed state Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava because they thought she would appeal to centrists and independents. But more conservative party members revolted and instead backed Doug Hoffman, who ran on the Conservative Party ticket. Scozzafava dropped out days before the race and endorsed Bill Owens, the Democratic candidate. The split among Republicans contributed to Owens' win.

How will the Tea Party affect the GOP in the long term?

"What happened over the course of the summer as the town hall meetings got hijacked, you started to see a new kind of activist taking over the Tea Party movement," Avlon said. "As the wingnut fringe blurred with the base, you've seen more unhinged [crazy] attacks proliferate, and there still hasn't been a transition to a positive agenda." Many Tea Party members began directing their anger at Obama, calling him socialist and carrying posters with his face altered to resemble Hitler or The Joker or alluding to Obama being a monkey.

A funny thing about the Tea Party convention: not very many young people showed up. As the Tea Party's first national convention got under way, an overwhelming majority of white, middle-aged (and older) army of angry conservatives/libertarians, furious with government spending and influence, ready to do whatever they can to stop it, united in their anger but divided over the future of the movement. The convention was marketed as an opportunity to bring Tea Party leaders from across the country together to network and support the movement. But the high-priced-ticket convention, organized by a for-profit organization, is contradictory to the group's bottom-up, grass-roots beginnings. The convention has been dogged by infighting, with some protesting its $549 entrance fee and its hierarchical organization.

The organizers say it is all about cultivating the political anger that's out there and generating it to power political change. They do not like Obama Democrats, and some do not like Republicans. But when talk turns to the possibility of a third party, a Tea Party, that is when people in the movement seem to get queasy. Tea Partiers almost unanimously say it's not their goal. Something that is organized and national seems the very antithesis of what they're about -- being grass roots, staying local, more states rights, and less federal government. Mark Meckler and Jenny Beth Martin, founders of the Tea Party Patriots, say they are frustrated that other Tea Party groups are being run by Republican political consultants. Meckler and Martin refused to attend the convention.

"It wasn't the kind of grass-roots organization that we are, so we declined to participate," Meckler said.

Rival Tea Party factions are battling over who will carry the Tea Party banner. Some members worry powerful Astroturf groups are profiteering from the Tea Party. In fact, Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann were supposed to speak at the convention, but both dropped out, citing problems with the for-profit status of the Tea Party Nation, the group behind the event.

For the Tea Party to be a constructive movement, it will need to repudiate the unhinged Obama-haters and then focus its anger at fiscal irresponsibility into policy proposals instead of bumper-sticker platitudes. But the likelihood of that happening is nil. Author Eric Hoffer warned in his book, The True Believer: "Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket."

Avlon said the concerns over the proceeds have undercut the event's attempt to be a rallying point. "They like to compare themselves to the founding fathers. Well, imagine if John Hancock had been trying to make a buck off the constitutional convention….If it [the Tea Party] just empowers the extremes in the party, then when extremes control parties – when wingnuts hijack a political party – ultimately, they take it off a cliff."

I surely hope so. Then the Republican Party can start over and once again welcome moderates.