Magazine | August 29, 2011, Issue

A Tea-Infused Party

Of conservative populism, past and future

Two years ago, the Tea Party was a collection of racists in the liberal mind. Nowadays the epithet of choice, blessed by the vice president, seems to be “terrorist.” This is not progress: While we shun racists, we kill terrorists. But this evolution in perception is probably a testament to the tea parties’ political progress. Nobody these days is afraid of a bunch of racists.

It is not just political invective that clouds our understanding of the tea parties. They have been misunderstood not only by their foes, but by their friends and even their members. Liberals have sometimes portrayed them as the creation of Koch Industries, and conservatives have responded by noting that they are a decentralized, grassroots movement. Yet some of these same conservatives have not hesitated to announce what “the Tea Party” believes. The mainstream media are generally not nuanced observers of right-of-center political phenomena, but can perhaps be excused in this instance by the confusing self-presentation of their subjects.

Whatever the reasons, misleading tropes have dominated coverage of the tea parties. Among them: They are unsophisticated newcomers to politics. They detest compromise. They hate the recent debt-limit deal, and feel betrayed by Republicans who supported it. They do not care about social issues. They are ready to defeat any incumbent Republican politician who refuses to toe their line. This is not just the impression of the tea parties one would get from the press. It is also the impression one would get from reading the press releases of the organizations most identified with them.

But it requires only a look at the recent congressional action on the debt limit to reveal the falsity of the impression. In the final days of the standoff, Speaker John Boehner tried to get House Republicans to vote for legislation to increase the debt limit three times. First, he advanced a measure to cut spending while raising the limit. When he found that he did not have enough votes, he added to the measure a provision stating that Congress would have to approve a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution for the debt limit to increase. A few days later, he supported a bipartisan agreement to raise the debt limit, make spending cuts, and establish a “supercommittee” to identify further cuts.

Most House Republicans backed him all three times. That includes most freshman Republicans, who are usually lumped into the tea-party caricature. It includes most members of the “Tea Party Caucus” in the House, and such well-known tea partiers as Allen West of Florida and Renee Ellmers of North Carolina. Several prominent organizations associated with the Tea Party said that they would hold votes for the first and third bills against congressmen, and some of them opposed all three. These threats did not sway many votes.

One question this split raises is: Who is more likely to have his finger on the pulse of tea-party opinion? The activist groups who claim to speak for tea partiers? Or the congressmen who got elected by winning tea partiers’ votes? We will have a test soon enough: Some of the tea-party groups are saying they will mount primary campaigns against such alleged turncoats as Representative West.

#page#The record of the 2010 primary season suggests that Representative West and like-minded colleagues do not have much to fear. That record, too, has been shrouded in myth. Tea-party victories over establishment candidates in the primaries have led to speculation that Republican incumbents who stray from the tea-party line — with the “tea-party line” again being defined in terms of the activist groups and the caricature — will lose their seats.

But the pattern of tea partiers’ beating the Republican establishment held true mostly in open seats. Mike Castle, Jane Norton, Sue Lowden: None of these establishment-backed Senate candidates who lost primaries was an incumbent. (Nor was Charlie Crist, who backed out of the Republican primary rather than lose.) Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska did narrowly lose her primary to a tea partier, but she may not have had all the benefits of incumbency, since she had been appointed rather than elected to her seat; and she managed to keep her seat in the end by running as an independent. Sen. Arlen Specter was an incumbent who left the Republican party rather than lose a primary, but he did that just as the tea parties were beginning to take shape rather than as a response to them. Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah lost his party’s nomination, and his seat, in a convention. Most observers doubt he would have lost in a primary election. The tea parties, in short, did not knock off a single Republican incumbent in a primary.

In the House, only two Republican incumbents, both southerners, lost to challengers supported by tea partiers. Rep. Parker Griffith of Alabama was a Democratic congressman who switched parties and then lost his first Republican primary a few months later. Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina supported TARP, like a lot of tea-party targets last year, but also supported a carbon tax and opposed the Iraq surge. This isn’t a list that should strike fear into the hearts of Republican congressmen planning to run for reelection in 2012.

A closer look at the 2010 primaries complicates the narrative of tea-party victories in another way. The pattern of results seems inexplicable without reference to abortion, an issue that “the Tea Party” supposedly doesn’t care about. Why did John McCain, Dan Coats, Carly Fiorina, and Kelly Ayotte all win their Senate primaries against candidates who associated themselves with the tea parties and accused their opponents of a fondness for big government? And why did Specter, Crist, Murkowski, and Castle lose? Doubtless each race featured its own idiosyncrasies. But it is impossible to deny that pro-lifers associated with the party establishment fared much better than pro-choicers. (And when pro-life establishment figures lost Senate primaries, as in Colorado and Nevada, it was to pro-life tea partiers.)

Here is another way of looking at the tea parties that might make sense of these patterns. It begins by dismissing the idea of them as something wholly new under the sun. Every period of liberal governance in recent decades has seen an upsurge of conservative activism. This was true of the Johnson, Carter, and early-Clinton eras, as it is now of the Obama years. In some of these periods the conservative reaction to liberalism was actually stronger, in some ways, than the current one. The conservative tide of the mid-1990s defeated Clinton’s health-care plan while Obama’s went through. And it carried Republicans to victory in both chambers of Congress in the midterms while the 2010 Republicans won only the House.

#page#Each of these periods saw an increase in both the number and the zeal of conservatives. People who had not voted Republican, or sometimes voted at all, joined the ranks. People who had merely voted Republican became activists. The Tea Party is simply the form the reaction took this time. In a January 2010 look at survey data on the tea parties, Kate O’Beirne and I argued that they were made up of Republicans who were more ideological, but less committed to the party, than others in the GOP.

As we also noted, the Christian Right followed a parallel track in the late 1970s. Its themes were not new to the Republican party: Barry Goldwater had campaigned in 1964 on a platform that inveighed against “moral decline and drift,” for example. But the emphasis was new, and so was the political style. Similarly, the tea parties did not bring to the Republican party the ideas that the Constitution places limits on the welfare functions of the federal government and that legislators should abide by them. But the tea parties gave those ideas renewed political vitality. And just as Christian conservatism was the path through which former Democrats, and formerly apolitical voters, joined the Republican party, so too have the tea parties been a source of both growth and controversy.

The boundaries between Christian conservatives and other types of conservatives were always blurry, and the tea parties are if anything more amorphous. O’Beirne and I did not mention another parallel that has grown in importance. A recurrent temptation of Christian conservatives has been to think of themselves as a silent majority of the country just waiting to be given voice. On some issues, they did speak for the majority — but the majority never accorded even those issues the same importance that the Christian conservatives did. They were a sizable minority that could have a large impact on American politics if they formed coalitions with other types of conservatives, and with some voters who were not conservatives.

That’s what the tea partiers did in 2010 where they succeeded. Marco Rubio’s primary victory in Florida drew on traditional free-market Republicans and social conservatives as well as tea partiers. Bob Inglis lost his primary because of tea partiers and defense hawks — and, again, some of these were the same people. In the general elections, Republicans had the support of all kinds of conservatives as well as independent voters who had the sense that the Obamacare-and-stimulus-passing Democrats had gone too far.

Without new participants and passion, conservatives would never have won back the House or made big gains in the Senate and the states in November 2010. Nor would they have been able to re-center the political debate on federal spending and indebtedness. The tea parties have been remarkably effective in a short period of time, in part because so many of their members have been more practical than they are often portrayed. To the extent tea partiers indulge in factionalism — for example, threatening to defeat Representative West in a primary — they will limit their future effectiveness. They will fail to unite all the people who consider themselves tea partiers, let alone reach beyond that group. And they will quickly find that political actors who do not deliver on their threats are neither feared nor loved.

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

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