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02.03.11

The GOP's Tea Party Tango

Should John Boehner empower the Tea Party caucus? Will Michele Bachmann be stifled by mainstream Republicans? Mark McKinnon on Republicans’ risky decisions heading into 2012.

It takes two to tango. Though one partner faces forward and one faces backward, both usually traverse the floor in the same direction, with the same ultimate goal—conquest. In the GOP’s tense but close embrace of the Tea Party, the battle is on. Who will take the lead?

A new Gallup poll shows more than half of Democrats, and an overwhelming majority of Americans in both parties, think Republican leaders in Congress should take the Tea Party movement's positions and objectives into account as they address the nation's problems. And while the historic Republican wins in the midterms would not have happened without the Tea Party, neither would the losses in Nevada (Sharron Angle) and Delaware (Christine O’Donnell). But it is interesting to note that U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson, in his ruling against the Obama health-care overhaul, referred to the Tea Party—the original, that is, in 1773.

Though the GOP sometimes struggles with two right feet, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) are putting one foot in front of the other, making good on their pledges to America. But not at a fast enough tempo for some conservative grassroots activists frustrated with Washington’s out-of-control spending. As Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) noted about the disconnect between the Beltway and the real world, "What seems doable here [in D.C.] is not enough."

Boehner’s dance card is already full, but Tea Party favorite Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) wants her turn on the floor. Thought to be placated with a seat on the House Intelligence Committee, Bachmann misstepped with her unofficial response to President Obama’s State of the Union address. Her unnerving delivery, driven in part by an off-kilter pool camera, was met with derision from the media and a stiff arm from Republican leadership. Majority Leader Eric Cantor noted Bachmann’s opinion was just one of 535 in the House and Senate. Nevertheless, Bachmann stole the spotlight from Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), with much of the resulting media coverage focused on her and not the GOP’s message.

As 2012 approaches, Tea Party members will keep reminding the GOP they need to “dance with the one that brung ya’.”

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Undaunted, the Bachmann-led House Tea Party Caucus will hold its first meeting this session on Feb. 12. Membership in the caucus last Congress totaled 52, but with dozens of new Tea Party-backed members elected in the 2010 midterms, the caucus is likely to grow. First up on the agenda, a debt ceiling debate—where Boehner’s desire for an adult conversation may be denied by fervent Tea Party freshmen who have already voiced opposition to an increase in the ceiling unless significant spending limitations are set or a balanced budget amendment is adopted.

Bachmann may be following in Sarah Palin’s footsteps, but she doesn't need a satellite uplink to get to the cameras. As Politico notes, “The Tea Party loves her, the media promotes her, and she is a huge draw on the fundraising circuit.” And she will continue to challenge Boehner and others for the lead.

In a more careful dance on the Senate floor, the first meeting of the newly formed Senate Tea Party Caucus, organized by freshman Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Mike Lee (R-UT), and conservative powerhouse Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), was attended by more activists and media than members. Noticeably absent was Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who remains unconvinced  that there's a need for a formal Tea Party caucus when other groups, such as the Republican Study Committee, represent the same conservative voice.

Wary of being taken for granted, Tea Party activists are carefully watching Republicans in Congress as they tackle the deficit and spending. While unified that cuts are needed, disagreements will arise on what to cut, and how much to cut.

As 2012 approaches, Tea Party members will keep reminding the GOP they need to “dance with the one that brung ya’.” Tea Party challenges to GOP incumbents in the primaries are already planned against Sens. Dick Lugar (R-IN), Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME). Learning from Sen. Bob Bennett’s embarrassing loss at the Utah GOP convention last election cycle, Hatch is now actively courting the Tea Party vote.

Of course, the big elephant in dance shoes in the room is Sarah Palin. Ironically the straw poll winner for GOP 2012 nominee at the liberal Netroots Nation conference in Las Vegas last summer, the Mama Grizzly is a threat to Republican Party unity with 46 percent of GOP primary voters who favor Palin expressing interest in a third-party option if she isn’t nominated.

In trying to fully embrace the Tea Party, the GOP runs the risk of spurning more moderate voters in the general election. But if Republicans don’t pursue Tea Party priorities with fervor, they risk being dumped even before the 2012 prom. On the other foot, the Tea Party may benefit from playing the field a bit and not fully committing. Allowing the GOP to hold them close and take the lead weakens the strength of their position.

In this dance of political seduction, someone’s gonna’ get screwed.

As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.