With Middle America afraid of losing their jobs, houses, retirement savings, and children's education; with the Republican brand remaining at a low ebb; with the country describing itself as "center-right"; and with an administration governing from the far left, there is plenty of room for new players in American politics, and they are arriving in droves. The annual establishment Conservative Political Action Conference expanded to 10,000 participants this month, had a majority of participants under 25 and displayed a distinct libertarian fervor. But the real new kid on the block is the Tea Party movement of middle aged, middle class folks who are "mad as hell and not going to take it anymore" from either the Democrats or the Republicans.
The Tea Party movement is young and rambunctious, taking its name from a rant in February of 2009 by CNBC's Rick Santelli. (I'd love to see his personnel file at NBC.) Subsequent events, largely promoted by Fox News, included hundreds of protests on April 15 (Tax Day), and July 4, a Washington D.C.-focused rally on September 12, and a Tea Party Convention in Nashville on February 4-6. Las Vegas follows in March, and Boston in April. Much of the energy of the movement is driven by the Obama administration's financial excesses, but the health care debate - and particularly Congress' lack of response to angry voters at Town Hall meetings throughout the summer has provoked a reaction to the point that only 21% of the public now think that government has the consent of the governed. That is way beyond "not listening".
Some comments on the players:
1. Glenn Beck has been an active advocate, promoting the events, publishing a set of "9-12 principles and values", acting as a Paul Revere, and headlining the CPAC conference. Criticism from the White House hasn't hurt.
2. Sarah Palin was pitch perfect in her speech at the party convention, while insisting that the movement was best without a designated leader.
3. Several groups are trying to bring organization: Dick Armey's FreedomWorks, the low tax/limited government advocates that managed the Nashville convention and supports a new "Contract from America"; Jenny Beth Martin's Tea Party Patriots, an umbrella group which claims 1000 chapters; American Majority, dedicated to training local candidates and activists; and Americans for Prosperity, limited government advocates with chapters in 26 states.
Most of the leaders in the Tea Party movement are conscious of several risks:
1. The focus is generally on fiscal responsibility and good government with almost no component of social issues, and little on national defense which could divide libertarians and other conservatives. Somewhat like Newt Gingrich's 1994 "Contract with America" and Bill Buckley's 1960 "Sharon Statement", most conservative movement leaders have recently signed a "Mount Vernon Statement" of founding constitutional principles which they hope to guide them through the 2010 elections and beyond.
2. Without central leadership, such a prominent group can attract crazies from the right. Recently, the New York Times has emphasized connections to the John Birch Society, Lyndon LaRouche, and militia organizers. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano has stirred the pot by warning of the danger of returning military veterans and Tea Party activists. Check your guns at the door please.
3. Both parties have sinned, and on fiscal matters it is important to criticize Republicans as well as Democrats. The Tea Party activists are more vocal on this than the establishment-types who organize CPAC, and they are more likely to target moderate Republicans in primaries - Charlie Crist in Florida; Bob Bennet in Utah. And most don't regret intervention in a New York special election which gave the former Republican seat to a Democrat. But, most participants recognize that the history of third party candidates for president - Teddy Roosevelt; Ross Perot; Ralph Nader - shows that they only serve to draw votes from the preferred major party candidate. Erik Erikson's mantra is "support conservatives in the primaries and Republicans in the general." Democrats hope otherwise.
These are Nixon's "Silent Majority" who later became "Reagan Democrats" and Ross Perot's foot soldiers. The Republicans will try to incorporate them, but this time they are their own force, they understand communication, and they are getting organized. They may not survive beyond an election cycle or two, but 2010 is their year.
This week's video is a short excerpt from an interview with Charlie Cook, one of the most highly respected neutral followers of national politics. Republican optimism abounds.
And I wouldn't normally want to give Keith Olbermann any face time, but this is too good to pass up.
bill bowen - 2/26/10