The Tea Party movement is having growing pains as it tries to pivot from protest to political leadership. Low-turnout, high-intensity midterm elections are well suited to their strengths, and a return to fiscal responsibility is the right message. But will the extremists in their midst alienate more voters than they attract?
With successful victories over GOP Establishment Senate candidates in Utah, Nevada, and Kentucky—and polls showing another likely win in Colorado coming in early August—the Tea Party movement has been riding high in primaries this summer. Michele Bachmann’s newly announced Tea Party Caucus—along with a string of recent extremist eruptions and repudiations—points to the risks of embracing the movement uncritically as it impacts the fall elections and the upcoming Congress.
The Tea Party is at a crossroads—with increased political influence down one path and the radioactive radicalism on the other. It is a choice between Milton Friedman and Michele Bachmann.
For example, the Tea Party movement self-identifies as the champions of fiscal conservatism and uses libertarianism as a key part of its sales pitch—but leading young fiscal conservatives on Capitol Hill like Paul Ryan and Jeff Flake were not among the congressional caucus’ members. Instead, with few exceptions, the current Tea Party Caucus reads like an all-star list of congressional Wingnuts, following in its founder's footsteps. Here's a sample:
• Paul Broun (R-GA)—the first congressman to compare Obama to Hitler—one week after the election.
• Trent Franks (R-AZ)—called President Obama an “enemy of humanity”
• Steve King (R-IA)—said that “al Qaeda, and the radical Islamists and their supporters, will be dancing in the streets in greater numbers than they did on September 11” if Obama were elected.
• Louie Gohmert (R-TX)—compared homosexuality to bestiality and necrophilia in a debate over hate crimes on the House floor.
• Randy Neugebauer (R-TX)—screamed “baby killer” at Congressman Bart Stupak (D-MI) after the health-care bill vote on the House floor.
• Lamar Smith (R-TX)—told students that “the greatest threat to America is not necessarily a recession or even another terrorist attack…The greatest threat to America is a liberal media bias.”
• Joe Wilson (R-SC)—“You Lie!”
This is just a partial list of their greatest hits, recited more or less from memory. But if you’re looking for more substantive evidence of the schism, here’s something to consider: Seven of the 12 co-sponsors of the Birther Bill are charter members of the Tea Party Caucus. Only one member of the House GOP leadership, Mike Pence, decided to join, while John Boehner and Eric Cantor notably declined the honor. Utah freshman Jason Chaffetz explained his opposition via Twitter: “The more you try to put structure around the tea-party, the more compromised it will become.” And interestingly, while Tea Party affiliation was an asset in the closed GOP Florida primary for Marco Rubio, now that he’s losing ground against Charlie Crist in the general election, he’s not saying whether he’ll affiliate with the proposed Tea Party Caucus if he gets elected to the Senate.
This caucus controversy comes on the heels of a week in which the Tea Party movement has been forced to confront its demons in public for the first time.
After the NAACP condemned the Tea Party’s lack of condemnation of racist signs in their midst, Tea Party Express spokesman Mark Williams responded with a blog post in which "colored people" asked President Lincoln to renounce emancipation because freedom was too hard. New York City-based African-American Tea Party leader David Webb subsequently announced Williams’ expulsion from the Federation on Face the Nation. The Iowa Tea Party Patriots put up a highway billboard comparing President Obama to Hitler and Lenin (replicating posters I’ve seen at Tea Party rallies in the past). After the inevitable outcry, the billboard was taken down. Most recently, Andrew Breitbart claimed his latest scalp of liberal hypocrisy only to have it be revealed that USDA employee Shirley Sherrod’s speech was taken unforgivably out of context, causing backtracking—and just maybe some needed soul searching—all around.
Some Tea Party supporters see these renunciations as evidence of healthy self-correction inside the movement. “Despite its portrayal in either faction of the partisan press, the Tea Party movement is refreshingly representative of American demographics and sensibilities. That means you aren't going to find a lot of racists in their ranks,” says Owen Rounds, a friend and executive producer of Tea Party-favorite PJTV.com. “And as we saw with the billboard in northern Iowa and Mark Williams' recent blogging, when activists cross the line, individuals within the movement respond accordingly. These episodes reinforce how this is a movement united by outrage toward government spending and the profound disapproval of the size and scope of the state. That is why ruling-class elites in both parties are scared about the impact the Tea Party movement will have in November."
For my part, I’ve always believed the wholesale partisan defense or criticism of the Tea Party movement misses the mark. It began as a principled fiscal conservative protest—grassroots, not astroturf—in a time of economic anxiety and bailout backlash against both big government and big business. They were center-right citizens who worked hard to balance their budgets and were offended by the deficits and debt they saw as generational theft.
But that’s only half the story. The actions they were protesting began under Bush. But the take-to-the-streets outrage only materialized with Obama in office. The Tea Party came to be promoted, and in some cases funded, by partisan interests, compounded by congressional battles over the stimulus bill and then health care. Demagogues always do well in economic downturns, preaching variations on the "us vs. them" script, and over the summer of 2009, a serious dose of Obama Derangement Syndrome got baked in the cake. Fear and hate became recruiting tools and aids for ratings, as supporters were made to feel that losing the 2008 election was like living under tyranny.
Supporters of the Tea Party movement saw only the principled fiscal conservative protests and the prospects of partisan gain. They dismissed the extremists in their midst as insignificant and therefore not worth dignifying with condemnation, or—my favorite tack—as the work of liberal provocateurs. Opponents of the Tea Party saw only the unhinged attacks on the president and described all Tea Partiers as racist or crazy, exacerbating the already angry divides.
Back in the early 1960s, when William F. Buckley was building the modern conservative movement, he famously condemned John Birch Society founder Robert Welch for his statement that President Eisenhower was a “dedicated, conscious agent of the communist conspiracy.” The message was clear: There was such a thing as too extreme, and unhinged elements were not welcome because they would discredit the entire conservative movement.
What’s been different this past 18 months is the reluctance to condemn extremism by conservative leaders. Either because they privately agree with the unhinged statements—as the quotes from some of the congressmen above suggest—or because they are concerned that the fringe is blurring with the base and they are afraid that if they condemn the fringes they will alienate their base.
But the pragmatism that comes with the prospect of actual governance is changing the calculus. The play-to-the-base fiscal and social conservatism propelling Tea Party candidates to victories in primaries is starting to cause problems for them in the general election.
The Tea Party is at a crossroads—with increased political influence down one path and the radioactive radicalism on the other. It is a choice between Milton Friedman and Michele Bachmann. The Tea Party’s self-described core message of fiscal conservatism is one that can appeal to voters in the center of the electorate, but there should be growing awareness that the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” approach to politics has practical limits. The Tea Party needs to clearly condemn the extremists who sometimes cluster under their flag if they hope to complete the transition from angry protest to policy impact.
John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.