Magazine December 7, 2009, Issue

Energy Tea

The power of the resurgent conservative populism

For conservatives, the populist question is front and center once again. 

It began last year with divergent reactions among conservative elites to John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate. That controversy continued beyond the defeat of the McCain-Palin ticket and is far from over today; it has branched out into a debate over Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, other conservative cable and radio hosts, and the town-hall/tea-party phenomenon of vigorous pushback against President Obama and his policies. Is the negative, take-no-prisoners style of the conservative talkers and tea-partiers gratifying in the short run but fatal to the prospect of a conservative comeback in the medium and long run? 

So far, the movement has had some success in turning the country against Obama’s health-care agenda. A national Quinnipiac survey taken in late September and early October, for example, finds voters opposed to Obama’s plan by a margin of 47 to 40 percent. While the president has an overall job approval/disapproval rating of 50/41 percent, 51 percent of voters disapprove of his handling of health care, with only 41 percent approving. 

Yet while some Republican members of Congress helped the tea-partiers bring down Obama’s support, the GOP has gained very little in overall public esteem — on this issue or any other. According to Quinnipiac, voters still trust Obama more than Republicans on health care by a 47–31 margin, and overall they disapprove of Republicans by a margin of 53 to 25 percent. (Quinnipiac’s findings are representative of recent polling, including polls taken since the GOP’s gubernatorial victories on November 3.) It’s true that Republicans have been running close to even in polling for the 2010 congressional elections, but mainly because considerable numbers of voters have soured on Obama and the Democrats — and not because the electorate has concluded that Republicans offer superior policy ideas or the prospect of a more efficient federal government.

At the same time, town-hall conservatives have demonstrated that the United States is still a center-right country. Around the time of the inauguration, it seemed plausible that Obama’s presidential honeymoon would last long enough for him to win broad public acceptance of a historic move to the left on many issues. The emergence of vocal dissenters went a long way toward discrediting that idea. 

Almost no political strategists predicted that the president’s near-iconic approval ratings would come back to earth so soon and so abruptly. Certainly no one expected a major turning point in the form of town-hall meetings, which members of Congress had been holding for many decades with minimal unrest, usually in an atmosphere of stupefying boredom. 

In fact, conventional wisdom among Republican elites early this year was that attacking Obama too quickly would backfire. I remember considerable disdain among GOP elites last winter and spring for the early wave of tea parties. This seems to have influenced political calculations, for instance in the purple 20th congressional district of New York. The Republican candidate to succeed Kirsten Gillibrand, who vacated her House seat to take Hillary Clinton’s seat in the Senate, went several weeks without offering a position on President Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package. I suspect this happened because his Republican consultants and pollsters were telling him that straddling the issue was preferable to being seen as critical of an attractive young president with approval ratings in the stratosphere. 

Fears of premature confrontation probably motivated Republican county chairmen to impose a down-the-line social and economic liberal, New York State assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, as the Republican nominee in another upstate special election for a House seat. This election, in the historically red 23rd district, was to fill the vacancy left by veteran GOP congressman John McHugh’s appointment as secretary of the Army. Scozzafava’s backroom selection — there is no need for a primary under New York’s special-election law — happened in July, before the town-hall meetings of the August recess made it clear that Obama’s honeymoon had ended.

As for the supposedly hate-filled radio and cable hosts, I remember their mood in the immediate aftermath of Obama’s inauguration as rather fatalistic. They of course welcomed the populist upsurge, but in its initial stages they seemed as startled as anyone that it was happening so fast and in so many different places, with so little evident top-down leadership or coordination.

If the populist upsurge had little to do with Republican officials or the talk-radio/cable-TV jockeys, how did it begin? 

The uprising was in fact started by a 56-year-old CNBC business reporter named Rick Santelli. His live, four-minute tirade on February 19 against Obama’s mortgage-relief plan was delivered on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in pre-market hours, but the Drudge Report linked to it and within hours it had become a YouTube sensation. Santelli’s attack on the mortgage bill broadened into an attack on federal bailouts in general; he called for a “tea party” in the spirit of the anti-tax, anti-British outburst in the Boston Harbor of the 1770s. Within days, tea parties were being organized all over the country. They were right-of-center in rhetoric and anti-Obama in an assertive style that violated all conventional wisdom about the appropriate tone of opposition during presidential honeymoons. But they were not necessarily pro-Republican. There was no nostalgia for George W. Bush, who in the midst of the 2008 credit crunch had inaugurated the seemingly never-ending cycle of federal bailouts, and no affection for Republican members of Congress and their leaders, most of whom had been in on the bailouts from Day One.

In these early days of 2009, the tea partiers’ lack of affection for Republican elites seemed fully reciprocated. Republican members of Congress were still numb from the electoral poundings they had taken in 2006 and 2008. The Politico and others quoted anonymous GOP consultants’ and congressmen’s worrying about a voter backlash against the tea parties.

But discontent with Obama had been growing. Weeks before Santelli’s outburst led to the first wave of mass discontent, a Gallup survey that in general showed overwhelming public support for Obama’s policies found that two of the president’s moves had prompted strikingly negative reactions. One concerned a social issue — reversal of the Reagan-originated “Mexico City prohibition” on the use of American foreign-aid funds for overseas abortions — and the other a national-security issue — the announcement that the Guantanamo military prison would close in one year.

But it was debate over Obama’s $787 billion stimulus bill — coming amid auto bailouts, sharply increased supplemental spending on the leftover Bush budget, and passage of a fiscal 2010 budget that ensured a second straight federal deficit well in excess of $1 trillion — that marked the end of his honeymoon among Republican voters. While perhaps inevitable given the leftward tilt of the president’s emerging policies, it was somewhat unexpected at the time. 

Particularly surprised was Pennsylvania’s senior senator, Arlen Specter, who had been walking ideological tightropes and living to tell about it for nearly three decades. Specter was one of only three Republicans in either house of Congress to vote for the stimulus package (the others were the Maine senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins). Almost instantly, Specter went from enjoying a solid lead to being well behind in the May 2010 GOP primary. Within weeks, he announced that he would continue his campaign for reelection, but as a Democrat, with backing from President Obama, Senate majority leader Harry Reid, and Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell. 

When asked why he was so abruptly changing parties, Specter was refreshingly candid in acknowledging that a single vote, for Obama’s stimulus package, had made it impossible for him to survive his state’s Republican primary. The stimulus vote was only the most recent of dozens of liberal votes he had cast in his 28-plus years as a left-of-center Republican senator from Pennsylvania in the mold of Hugh Scott, Richard Schweiker, and John Heinz. But none of those earlier votes, unwelcome though they may have been to conservatives, had caused an overnight political earthquake among his constituents. In 2009, the first year of the Obama era, something had changed.

Despite the departure of almost all Republicans and a growing number of independents from the ranks of voters favorably disposed to Obama, congressional Democrats closed ranks, and the administration prevailed in early budget, spending, and tax-increase votes — including the one by which the House passed an atrociously complex and burdensome cap-and-trade climate-change package (opponents quickly rechristened it “cap and tax”).

During the summer, the national debate shifted to health care — “reform” of which was the centerpiece of the president’s first-term agenda — and Democratic solidarity continued through various committee votes. But legislators soon realized that they were working in the shadow of their already-passed bills, which had pushed Obama’s image well to the left of how voters had viewed him in January 2009. And the contraction of the president’s approval rating among Republican voters increasingly limited the willingness of Republican congressmen and senators to participate in drafting and deal-making. 

Growing skepticism among independent voters, coupled with the Congressional Budget Office’s projections of sharply increased spending and deficits under the bills emerging from the more liberal congressional committees, began to worry Democratic legislators from center-right states and districts. Each time a new Democratic plan emerged from a committee, new policy details emerged with it — details that often seemed to threaten the ability of Americans to exercise control over their medical treatment and that of their loved ones.

There is no doubt that the town-hall meetings were a psychological turning point in the health-care debate. Before August, while troubled by the heavy weather the emerging committee bills were running into, many if not most Democratic strategists believed passage of Obamacare would help the party politically. But by Labor Day, most of these strategists believed that Obamacare had become a net minus for Democrats, and only the optimistic among them thought the issue would perhaps turn into a plus again before the 2010 elections. 

By far the most pivotal event happened on August 7. That was the day a 45-year-old mother of five who had a month earlier announced her resignation as governor of Alaska, definitively ending her political career according to nearly every elite analyst, posted five paragraphs on her Facebook page. The post was titled “Statement on the Current Health Care Debate.” Its second paragraph paraphrased conservative economist Thomas Sowell as observing that “government health care will not reduce the cost; it will simply refuse to pay the cost.” Sarah Palin went on to pose a question Sowell’s dictum implicitly raised: “And who will suffer the most when they ration care? The sick, the elderly, and the disabled, of course. The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.”

The elites and the mainstream media pounced on Sarah Palin not just with rebuttals, counterarguments, and “corrections,” but with a palpable sense of outrage that such words could be uttered at all, especially by so discredited and disreputable a source. The take of most Washington-based conservative elites involved in the health-care debate was that, while the thrust of Palin’s remarks was sound, her use of language like “evil” and “death panel” endangered the credibility of the sober, conscientious analysis they themselves were in the process of disseminating.

Congressional Democrats, coming under heavier fire at their town-hall meetings, reacted differently. They vehemently denied that their proposals called for death panels (the argument, however, had been that it would lead to them) and announced just days after Palin’s Facebook post that they would remove the creation of voluntary, federally subsidized medical-review committees from their existing committee bills.

But this retreat was too late to head off the emergence of the moral/social dimension of the debate as potentially decisive. The fear that federal rules would end up governing medical treatment of the elderly would not go away. And despite many reassurances from the Obama administration and congressional Democrats, the pro-life community, which includes the liberal-leaning National Conference of Catholic Bishops, was unanimously of the opinion that all five committee-approved versions of Democratic health-care legislation would weave government-subsidized abortion rights far more deeply into the fabric of American life.

After days of agonizing and fruitless negotiations with Speaker Nancy Pelosi over compromise pro-life language to be inserted in what Democratic leaders were engineering to be an unamendable bill, Democratic congressman Bart Stupak of Michigan announced that several dozen Democrats would not be able to vote for Obamacare on the House floor. With polls showing that the bill was not very popular in the first place and Republicans opposed to a man, it quickly became evident that the pro-life Democrats had the votes to bring the quest for Obamacare to an end. Pelosi relented, and the House Rules Committee was told to allow a floor vote on the Stupak-Pitts amendment to assure that Obamacare, if passed, would not enable federal funding for abortion. When the vote was held on November 7, 64 of the 258 Democratic congressmen, just short of one-fourth of the Democrats’ total House strength, joined the nearly unanimous Republicans in approving Stupak’s amendment. Obamacare then survived its up-or-down vote by the underwhelming margin of 220 to 215. All but one of the 177 House Republicans voted against it, along with 39 Democrats. 

At this writing, it is widely assumed in Washington that the Democrats will find a way to eliminate or water down the Stupak language in the slightly less pro-life Senate. But if they do, Stupak and a good share of the 63 other Democratic congressmen who voted for Stupak-Pitts will likely oppose the conference report and thus derail final passage. On the other hand, dozens of pro-choice Democrats who held their noses and voted for the pro-life version of Obamacare on November 7 have announced they will not do so a second time. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Obamacare overcomes this abortion deadlock, quite aside from the question whether Democrats can successfully address all the other objections that emerged in congressional debate and at the passionately contentious town-hall meetings. If August was the month when Obamacare turned into a political minus for Democrats, November may be remembered as the month when a powerful, grassroots-driven coalition of economic and social conservatives crossed party lines to defeat it. 

Whatever its impact on health care, the emergence and consolidation of such a coalition would be a seismic event in the conservative movement and in American politics. That such a broad-based populist impulse is capable of translating into electoral results was evident to anyone who looked in on the recent special election in the 23rd congressional district of New York, where the aforementioned liberal Republican, Dede Scozzafava, was overwhelmed and knocked out of the race by Conservative-party candidate Doug Hoffman. 

Though Hoffman fell a few votes short of being elected, his campaign was propelled from the beginning by the intervention of the Club for Growth, whose members were indignant at Scozzafava’s support for tax increases and “card check,” and by social conservatives indignant at her multiple votes for same-sex marriage and abortion rights. Also active in the coalition for Hoffman were veterans of the tea parties.

Completely absent both from the Hoffman campaign mounted by Conservative-party chairman Michael Long and from the various independent-expenditure grassroots efforts were the usual arguments, so ubiquitous among national Republican elites and Washington-based conservatives, over which issues to talk about and which not to. Hoffman included both social and economic issues in his campaign materials, and so did the independent grassroots efforts. Private polling found that both social and economic issues were contributing to Hoffman’s unexpected surge.

This wasn’t because the activists and voters who swung behind Hoffman agreed with one another on every issue or cared about all issues equally. They didn’t. Rather, the threat of being marginalized by someone well to the left on virtually every issue seemed more important than intra-conservative disagreements.

Could the conservative populism that has emerged to make 2009 so surprising carry forward and deny reelection to Barack Obama in 2012? If recent political history is any guide, the odds are against it. Only once since 1896 has a party gained the White House in one election and been kicked out of it in the next. 

Yet it’s intriguing that the party in question was the Democrats, that the president was Jimmy Carter, and that the election of Ronald Reagan was the culmination of a wave of conservative populism in which elites of both parties found themselves utterly out of sync with public opinion. No two election cycles are alike, and I possess no clairvoyance — I was as stunned as anyone when Rick Santelli called for tea parties on CNBC and then the tea parties proceeded to happen — but as a participant in and amateur analyst of the politics that led to 1980, I feel qualified to list a few of the events that, should you observe them, might lead you to expect something historic.

1. The incumbent president has vast confidence in his superior judgment and is extremely reluctant to make embarrassing midcourse reversals of policy or admit a serious mistake. In other words, a Jimmy Carter, not a Bill Clinton.

2. The challenger is not a serving member of Congress, and his or her visible political success has occurred mainly outside of Washington.

3. At least one important issue or talking point is being treated with disdain by elites, even those on the challenger’s side. For Ronald Reagan, that issue was the Panama Canal treaty, which was supported by Barry Goldwater, Bill Buckley, and almost every other high-status conservative.

4. The economy is having major problems.

5. One or more foreign-policy crises are making the incumbent president look clueless to most Americans.

6. The challenger engages in very little “issue selection.” He or she is an undiluted conservative, someone who identifies with conservatism on economics, foreign policy, and social issues.

7. The tendency to divide issues into walled-off categories itself fades. The appearance of a social issue, abortion, at the heart of a supposedly bread-and-butter “economic” issue like health care may begin to seem more normal, because an era of polarized politics involves the clash of integrated, internally consistent worldviews. It’s seldom recalled that the most controversial speech of Reagan’s presidency, the “Evil Empire” address of March 1983, was not focused exclusively on foreign policy, but was delivered to the National Association of Evangelicals and dealt extensively with abortion, contraception propaganda in public-school health clinics, and other social issues. 

8. The challenger has one or at most two bold proposals that he or she feels confident enough to defend with specificity and stubbornness, even under the inevitable fierce and focused attack.

9. The challenger is attacked by elites of all stripes, including many in his or her own party. The challenger’s negatives remain high until Election Day. (It is often forgotten that Ronald Reagan’s negatives were roughly as high as his positives just before he carried 44 states in 1980.)

10. Gaffes by the challenger don’t matter much, no matter how often they are repeated by the mainstream media or ridiculed by late-night comedians. Many conservative activists and political junkies agonized over whether voters would reject Reagan because of now-forgotten gaffes about things like “killer trees.” They didn’t.

In recent months, lyrics from “Where or When,” a Rodgers and Hart ballad from the 1930s, have kept popping into my head: 

Some things that happened for the first time

Seem to be happening again.

If they are — and I certainly hope they are — the conservative nightmare of a transformative leftist presidency could have a happy ending almost no one expected.

– Mr. Bell, a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, is the author of Populism and Elitism: Politics in the Age of Equality.

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