The Tea Party’s disappointment with the Republican field

In seeking both a powerful advocate or a strong candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, the Tea Partiers are likely to get neither.

Elections channel and dilute social movements.  This was James Madison’s design, and it works pretty much as he expected.  It fragments and filters social movements, and produces a great deal of frustration.

The Tea Party’s strong influence in the Republican Party has paradoxically produced an extremely weak and damaged field of contenders.  Tea Party enthusiasm and money encouraged a few very weak candidates (including Herman Cain and Rep. Michele Bachmann), and crowded out a few potentially strong ones.  And all of the hopefuls, with the partial exception of Jon Huntsman, were eager to pander to some version of the Tea Party to make progress in the primaries.

Of course, it’s hard to tie the Tea Party to a specific set of policy demands or issues.  Activists initially united on opposition to President Obama’s health care reforms.  Although there was shared language on the Constitution, limited government, deficits, and taxation, Tea Party groups differed greatly on how to pursue these goals and on their priorities.  In the early part of the Tea Party, there was a general agreement to put social issues, specifically abortion and same sex marriage, on the back burner.

In pursuit of the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, all of the candidates have brought those issues to the fore, and have fought to distinguish themselves by the vigor and authenticity of their commitment to those social issues.

And now, the most charitable interpretation is that Tea Party still has three candidates who appeal to its agenda, but partly and poorly.

Rep. Ron Paul, who has espoused a vision of limited government for decades, plausibly stands for the libertarian stream in the Tea Party, with a notable exception for his opposition to abortion.  But Rep. Paul has also alienated the party establishment, which ignores him when possible, offering occasional denigration of his vision of a very restrictive vision of foreign and military policy.

Former Senator Rick Santorum has a history as a social conservative, in Congress and since, and has championed the issues Tea Partiers initially decided were too divisive to organize around.  On fiscal matters, he politicked just like a regular Republican.

Finally, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose record offers little consistency on any set of issues, has effectively channeled a Tea Party attitude: anger and entitlement.  Thus far, he has been able to win support by railing against the media and Washington elites, while deflecting attention from his past, political or personal, or coherent positions on issues.  This might be able to carry him a long way, but the obvious reluctance of mainstream Republicans to have Speaker Gingrich top their ticket makes it unlikely.

So, Tea Party efforts are likely to help former Governor Mitt Romney, not a real Tea Partier on any dimension, emerge as the the Republican nominee.

It’s an American story.

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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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4 Responses to The Tea Party’s disappointment with the Republican field

  1. You know the elite are terrified of the Tea Party when Nancy Pelosi, George Will, The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times are all using the same talking points.

    What scares the elite is not a Newt Gingrich Presidency, but the possibility that the Tea Party will be able to complete their New Enlightenment revolution in just two years! Newt Gingrich has the ability of rallying the Tea Party all the way into November – making sure that the media and the pundits are always playing catch-up, never able to set the agenda when it comes to coverage or influence. Should this happen and the Tea Party holds the House and takes the Senate, in two years the Tea Party will have accomplished what it set out to do.

    And what was that goal they set out in numerous manifestos?

    The ability to alter the balance of power in favour of a middle class majority and away from a small cadre of academic, political and business elite that have had the run of the place for decades.

    From the perspective of someone who has researched the Tea Party for over two years now, I find it very interesting that the harder the elite sling the mud, the more the individual members of the Tea Party thumb their noses and pull the lever for that guy Newt.

    J.R. Werbics is a Canadian writer and philosopher.

    • We disagree on several things here, Jason. First, any Washington elite that includes George Will and Nancy Pelosi has to include Newt Gingrich as well. (I’m not sure how useful this term is anyway.) We disagree on Gingrich’s commitment to the Tea Party agenda. Over thirty years he has used issues to advance himself–and sometimes his party–when that worked for him, but he hasn’t consistently believed in anything but himself. (And, give him his due: to win election to the House on the third try and move from failed history professor to Speaker of the House is an extraordinary achievement.)
      People who worked with Gingrich don’t trust him. Given the number of chits he collected in the 1980s, the paltry list of former colleagues who have signed onto his campaign is truly damning. (I saw the same concern when none of the Democratic Senators who sat with John Edwards endorsed him.)
      Then there are three questions: can Gingrich win the Republican nomination? if he does, can he beat Obama? If he does, can he execute any kind of agenda? I’d say “no” to all three, with increasing degrees of certainty.

  2. I would like to tackle your last question first, since in all actuality the question “If he does [win the Presidency], can he execute any kind of agenda?” is the furthest from your claim of certainty than all the rest.

    I also find that you formulate most of your argument wrapped in the problem of induction (a debate perhaps for later).

    You say that he would not be able to carry out or execute an agenda. However, an agenda necessarily would exist – whether or not he has an agenda (personal or otherwise), an agenda would be supplied for him either in the form of government expediency and a need to keep things going, or one on a more grand scale would emerge – provided by the rebellion and revolution that seems to be sweeping the world. Yet, despite an agenda as an a priori, the question of execution still remains elusive since we still don’t know what the intended or proper outcome to this agenda should be, thus making an ability to claim certainty of outcome one way or another a very illusive thing indeed.

    Your second question “Can he beat Obama?” and answer of “no” is predicated on the assumption or on a degree of certainty that Newt Gingrich cannot win in a general election against President Obama. However, since in this illustration Gingrich has not yet been elected or rejected as the nominee of the Republican party and therefore has a chance to win that nomination…should he win and fulfill all the necessary requirements and leaves the convention as the Republican nominee, his ability to beat President Obama in a general election would be far greater than if he does not become the Republican Nominee for president.

    Your first question, “Can Gingrich win the Republican Nominee?” is by far the most certain of all your enquires. But a simple answer of “yes” or “no” is still not possible from my perspective at this point in our discussion, but the certainty involved in forming an answer to this question can be seen as far more accurate in both possibility and outcome than what is found in your last two questions.

    My answer to this question is: the longer that Newt Gingrich stays in the race, the more probable it is that he will become the nominee of the Republican Party.

    J.R. Werbics is a Canadian writer and philosopher.

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