Taking the Tea Party Indoors

It was an extremely crappy election for Democrats.  The 60 seat loss (thus far) in the House is historic, but it’s not all.  Democrats lost seats in the Senate and across the states.   You may be able to find the crazy optimist sifting through the crap and hoping to find a pony, but not here.

But bad news for the Democrats isn’t necessarily good news for the Tea Party movement,  and you’ll certainly remember the triumphalist (and mistaken) rhetoric that followed big elections in, oh, 1992, 1994, and 2008–to name just a few.  History hasn’t ended.

In trying to explain the most recent historic rout, politicians and pundits think more about the present.  Republicans say that the public rejected President Obama’s policies on health care, or the environment, or the deficit, emphasizing what they want to work on in the future.  Democrats chastise the president for being too bold or not bold enough, or just not working enough on communicating effectively.  (I don’t think you can really outcommunicate 9.5% unemployment.)

Current recriminations offer a useful take on the dilemmas the Tea Party movement and the Republicans now face.  Organizer and author Marshall Ganz, writing in the Los Angeles Times, takes Obama to task for abandoning the movements that got him elected:

Obama and his team made three crucial choices that undermined the president’s transformational mission. First, he abandoned the bully pulpit of moral argument and public education. Next, he chose to lead with a politics of compromise rather than advocacy. And finally, he chose to demobilize the movement that elected him president. By shifting focus from a public ready to drive change — as in “yes we can” — he shifted the focus to himself and attempted to negotiate change from the inside, as in “yes I can.”…

… the president chose compromise rather than advocacy. Instead of speaking on behalf of a deeply distressed public, articulating clear positions to lead opinion and inspire public support, Obama seemed to think that by acting as a mediator, he could translate Washington dysfunction into legislative accomplishment…

Seeking reform from inside a system structured to resist change, Obama turned aside some of the most well-organized reform coalitions ever assembled — on the environment, workers’ rights, immigration and healthcare. He ignored the leverage that a radical flank robustly pursuing its goals could give a reform president — as organized labor empowered FDR’s New Deal or the civil rights movement empowered LBJ’s Voting Rights Act….

Finally, the president demobilized the widest, deepest and most effective grass-roots organization ever built to support a Democratic president.

I’m sure you’ve already heard arguments like this, as well as the opposite position, that Obama neglected compromise and the political center.  What I’m interested in here is Ganz’s implicit advice to the Tea Party: maintain a link to the movement at the grassroots.

Like the Democrats, however, the Republicans in Congress face competing pressures, and now that the election is past, there’s less pressure or incentive to rally around the “R.”  The dirty laundry is out on the front porch, and partisans are beating each other with it.

Republican senators are castigating Senator Jim DeMint (South Carolina), and by implication, the Tea Party (particularly Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Express), for saddling them with, uh, suboptimal candidates like Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, and Ken Buck–in races that Republicans could have won.  The leadership is visibly worrying about at least some of the Tea Partiers who have gotten in, notably Rand Paul, who endorses the foreign policy views of his dad–which would isolate the United States from international commitments–and have clearly isolated the Paul family from the Republican mainstream.

And in the House, Tea Party stalwart Michele Bachmann, founder of the Tea Party Caucus, has announced the she will seek a leadership position in the Republican Caucus.  Once the challenge is announced, there’s not really a winning position for the Party; either it rejects a visible symbol of the Tea Party–who raised and spent enormous amounts of money on like-minded candidates–or it puts a set of personalities and policies supported by a small, and very passionate, minority, at the center of its public agenda.  It’s hard to see that as a winning strategy.

The movements that inspire people to engage in politics often make for awkward and demanding allies after the votes are counted.  The Tea Partiers want at least some of what they worked for–just as Democrats who heard candidate Obama promise to close Guantanamo, end the wars, or lift don’t ask, don’t tell, expected him to deliver once in office.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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