WMC News & Features

The Tea Party Movement - Taking the Pulse

Sharron Angle

So far this election year, the angry grass-roots organizing energy is strongest on the right, but the Tea Partiers are hard to pigeonhole says veteran D.C. journalist and frequent WMC reporter Peggy Simpson.

Now that the Tea Partiers seem to have found their sea legs in national politics, what is known about them? It’s risky to dismiss them—or to overrate their influence. And there isn’t agreement on the core issue of their likely impact in the 2010 mid-term elections.

The elections come against a backdrop of distress: more than eight million jobs have been lost in what’s being called the Great Recession, the worst economic meltdown since the 1930s. Today, more than 13 million people are out of work, nearly half of them for six months or more, which is the highest rate since WWII. That takes a toll. The Pew Center found that trust in government had dropped to only 22 percent, a level not seen in 50 years.

Economists and policy wonks strongly believe that President Obama’s bailouts and stimulus packages prevented a global economic meltdown. But it’s the opposite for longtime conservatives and libertarians with decades of anti-government and anti-tax crusades under their belt; they decry these same rescues as socialism, communism or worse. As new kids on the block, the Tea Partiers magnify the protests.

When Tea Party activists took over health care reform debates at last August’s Town Hall meetings, many Democrats dismissed them as wackos or ignorant political waifs. After Democratic defeats in statewide races in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts where Tea Partiers played varying roles, critics are more cautious. Some analysts now see them as part of the GOP’s traditional right-wing core, which can be up to 20 percent of the population.

A Politico poll of the April 15 Tax Day Tea Party in Washington, D.C., found a good number of libertarians in the ranks, agreeing with Tea Party goals to cut taxes and slash the size of government but dividing sharply on social issues, on whether government should promote traditional values or keep its distance. Given a choice on which party to support, they overwhelmingly chose Republicans.

There is no clear favorite among 2012 presidential candidates. Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin may score at the top of a dozen candidates but doesn’t get much beyond 12 to 13 percent support, despite her rock star status.

The Tea Partiers got much face time on national television in the past nine months, even more on talk radio. Reagan-era conservative politicos were scrambling to keep up—and sometimes to keep tabs on them. By spring 2010, some had created a political action committee to bankroll politicians who pass Tea Party muster. Working closely with them were conservative internet social networking groups such as Grassfire.com, created in 2001, and Resist.net, formed last year.

Today, they act empowered, with a sense that they have many national politicians on the run.

They relish taking on California Senator Barbara Boxer, an early critic who is facing more reelection resistance than in the past, and first-termer Representative Betsy Markey of Colorado. They take credit for pushing out Democratic Senator Chris Dodd, D-CN, and their one-time Democratic ally, Representative Bart Stupak of Michigan, from reelection bids.

They crow about their influence in pummeling Florida Governor Charlie Crist, only last fall a GOP heavy favorite for the open Senate seat, whose fortunes plummeted after he endorsed Obama’s stimulus plan. They’ve opposed other GOP candidates with Washington insider support, backing instead candidates like Rand Paul, son of GOP libertarian Ron Paul, in his bid for the open Senate seat in Kentucky.

Their real threat, however, is to Democrats. If the anti-Obama, anti-Washington pitch still resonates with GOP and GOP-leaning independents this fall, most analysts predict that Democrats will lose up to 30 seats in the House, along with some in the Senate.

Behind the Angry Rhetoric

Hotline editor Amy Walter says the level of anger isn’t higher this year. But it comes from Republicans and right-leaning independents whereas in 2006 and 2008, it came from Democrats. Today’s voters who say they are angry are 30 percent Republicans and 25 percent independents, with Democrats at only 9 percent. That’s a total opposite of 2008.

More ominous for Obama and the Democrats, Walter says, is the fear factor. The Pew survey showed that 30 percent of voters now see the federal government as a serious threat to their personal freedom, nearly double what it was in 2003 when pollsters last asked that question. This includes 57 percent of people who self-identify with the Tea Party, 43 percent of Republicans, and a majority of Republican-leaning independents.

Fear combined with anger can be a formidable propellant.

And the vitriol doesn’t seem to let up. Accusations are thrown with abandon that Obama is a socialist, communist or Nazi. A mention of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gets a knee-jerk reaction of boos and hisses from Tea Partiers.

When that happened to Oklahoma GOP Senator Tom Coburn as he addressed the Tea Party convention, he did an unexpected thing. He scolded them. “How many of you have met her? She’s a nice person... Let me give you a little lesson here. I hope you will listen to me. Just because somebody disagrees with you doesn’t mean they’re not a good person.” He then added fuel to the fire by saying there needed to be a debate on the issues so folks could make up their own minds. “So don’t catch yourself being biased by Fox News that somebody is no good...”

Coburn got immediate slap-downs from the big guns at Fox, including Glenn Beck, and from radio host Rush Limbaugh. The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus said they were outdone by their talk radio colleague at WABC, Mark Levin, whose rant at Coburn included this: “We don’t need you hack, detestable politicians telling us a damn thing. Most of you are a bunch of pathetic, unethical morons. And so, no, Mr. Coburn, we won’t be told to sit down and be quiet… Who the hell do you think you are? You sound like a jerk, to be perfectly honest about it...”

Who Is Coming to the Party?

Just who the Tea Partiers are—and who they are not—has been fleshed out by recent CBS/New York Times polls. This data has enabled analysts to compare them with the 1992 voters who backed Texas billionaire Ross Perot, whose presidential race against Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush included a fair number of libertarian supporters.

For all the high-glitz presence and potency of Palin and GOP Representative Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota, the polls show that 57 percent of Tea Partiers are men. This is 5 percent more men than the Perot campaign attracted.

Perot supporters were mostly white, mostly well educated (one third with college degrees) and that is the same for Tea Partiers.

But the Perot backers were far more diverse in age, income and ideology.

Only 44 percent of Tea Partiers are younger than 45, compared to 63 percent of Perot voters. The Perot people had about the same income profile as rank and file Americans. In contrast, 20 percent of Tea Partiers earn $100,000 or more (compared to 14 percent of the population); 55 percent earn $50,000 or more (compared to 44 percent of the general population and only 19 percent make less than $30,000, compared to 25 percent of the population).

Three-fourths of Tea Partiers call themselves conservatives, whereas among Perot voters, most said they were moderates (54 percent), with 27 percent saying liberal and 20 percent conservative.

High federal deficits agitated both campaigns. But a majority of Perot voters thought higher taxes were the answer; no way, for Tea Partiers. While 54 percent of Americans favor raising taxes on people making $250,000 and more, only 17 percent of Tea Partiers favor that.

The Tea Partiers seem to have a lot more in common with the Reaganites, not just in their crusade against government but in their views about the poor. President Reagan often talked about “welfare queens” who bilked the system, using such rhetoric to polarize the body politic and make his party a magnet for many blue collar voters.

The CBS/NYT poll found that 73 percent of Tea Partiers believe that “providing government benefits to poor people encourages them to remain poor,” compared to 38 percent for the average American. And 52 percent (compared to 19 percent of all Americans) say that “too much has been made of the problems facing black people.” One fourth of Tea Partiers say the Obama administration favors blacks over whites, compared to an average among Americans of only 11 percent.

Against a backdrop of intractable unemployment, this Tea Party mindset makes for tricky political footwork.

The GOP sees the Tea Partiers as gold, in states where there is no talk of a third party and where these are newly energized but unaffiliated activists who almost surely will vote Republican this fall.

Some Tea Party Women Who Run

In Minnesota, a GOP candidate for the state legislature with Tea Party support, Gretchen Hoffman, told a St. Paul reporter that she got involved during the U.S. Senate recount last year and “didn’t like the direction things were going in this country… I’d always been informed, but never really involved. And then one day I woke up and I saw my country going away.” She met with others who felt the same way, organized small gatherings and says that while they’re “not affiliated with any larger Tea Party group, there are a bunch of us around… we have something to say and we’re going to say it.”

Other Tea Partiers are political veterans, with decades of experience in such grass roots conservative causes as the National Rifle Association, anti-abortion and home-schooling as well as anti-tax movements. They work closely with conservative legal groups originally tied to Reagan such as the Claremont Institute.

One of those receiving such support is former GOP state representative Sharron Angle of Nevada, who was endorsed by the Tea Party Express in the crowded GOP primary vying to run against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. She got into politics when local officials tried to block her from home schooling her children. As a GOP legislative leader, she financed a lawsuit, with Claremont’s help, to challenge a state court ruling that allowed the legislature to raise taxes on a majority vote rather than a two-thirds vote.

When she talked to a Washington meeting of the Tea Party Express earlier this month, she said “I feel a little lonely. I usually bring Smith and Wesson along. But I’ll educate Washington about the Second Amendment.” She wants to block funding for health reform, curb the Internal Revenue Service and make sure “we are not going to be France. We are not going to accept socialism.”

For a second WMC Exclusive posted today, click on “The Tea Party Comes Out,” a commentary by Marie C. Wilson.

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