The Corner

The Past, Present, and Future of the Tea Parties

In an article about the tea parties last week, I wrote that the “differences between the Tea Party and ‘establishment Republicans’ have largely concerned style and attitude rather than program and ideology, and these are easily finessed — especially because moods change.” In his newsletter, The Transom, Ben Domenech says I’m understating the differences.

Consider two contrasting position clouds for hypothetical remarks to an establishment event vs. a Tea Party event: “Let’s do immigration reform, we should be honest about addressing climate change, (pick your entitlement) mend it don’t end it, let’s find state level solutions to make (Obamacare’s) Medicaid (expansion) work for working families, let’s show we love the poor by giving them something (but don’t worry not your something), let’s not be so lockstep on gun violence, premium support, capital gains, let’s protect our critical Pentagon budget, let’s invest in our future with Common Core, you know TARP made sense at the time, let’s build needed infrastructure we can be proud of, compassion, even Ronald Reagan…” Versus what you hear at a Tea Party event: “no more bailouts, no more Obamacare, no more Common Core, no more Congress living by different rules, no more welfare, no more food stamps, no more pork, no more subsidies, no more tariffs, don’t trust drones, Big Banks Big Business Big Government, George Washington, raw milk, open carry, why is Eric Holder not in jail, buy gold, the NSA is listening, Benghazi.”

I don’t think that opposing phrase cloud is just a stylistic difference. It’s about real differences in priorities and policy. 

Domenech is right that I understated the differences. In part, that’s because I was focusing on a slightly different set of questions than he is. I think, though, that he overstates them: If you’re defining tea partiers as people who want to end entitlements rather than mend them, you’re talking about a very small group of people; ditto if you’re defining the party establishment in terms of powerful Republicans who want to soften the party’s position on guns. The policy differences that do exist seem surmountable.

My main point, however, was that few tea partiers are as ferociously hostile to the Republican-party establishment as coverage sometimes suggests they are. There are a lot of Republicans around the country who have no idea that they’re not supposed to like both John Boehner and Ted Cruz. That’s part of the reason that Mitch McConnell was able to be Public Enemy No. 1 for some tea-party groups while winning the votes of most tea partiers.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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