Will GOP swal­low the tea party?

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

The tea party move­ment is rapidly be­com­ing just an­other fac­tion of the na­tional Repub­li­can Party. Orig­i­nally a grass­roots ex­pres­sion of anger at both par­ties, tea party groups eyed Democrats and Repub­li­cans with sus­pi­cion. And the par­ties were skep­ti­cal of the move­ment, too.

But in re­cent months, the GOP’s nat­u­ral elec­tion-year ap­petite for vot­ers, cam­paign vol­un­teers and donors has caused the Repub­li­cans to take a more wel­com­ing ap­proach, and the tea partiers have re­sponded.

Rep. Michele Bach­mann, R-Minn., the Sarah Palin of the House, formed an of­fi­cial Tea Party Cau­cus on Capi­tol Hill. Within three days, 42 mem­bers of Congress had signed up, all con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­cans.

The group won an al­most-in­stant bless­ing from House Repub­li­can leader John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, who de­scribed his own ex­pe­ri­ences at tea party ral­lies with near-re­li­gious en­thu­si­asm.

“Last La­bor Day week­end, there were 18,000 peo­ple about a mile from my home — 18,000 peo­ple!” Boehner said.

“These folks are the tip of an ice­berg,” Boehner went on. “We should lis­ten to them, we should work with them and we should walk amongst them.”

In a midterm elec­tion year, when turnout is hard to drum up, it’s easy to see why Repub­li­cans are ea­ger to har­ness the zeal. Just 18 months ago, the GOP was flat on its back. In some polls, fewer than 25 per­cent of vot­ers ad­mit­ted to be­ing Repub­li­cans.

For the GOP, the tea party isn’t just a po­ten­tial source of new vot­ers and cam­paign vol­un­teers; it’s a ve­hi­cle for re­brand­ing and re­demp­tion. Be­fore the tea party, the GOP was a tired old or­ga­ni­za­tion, fi­nanced largely by busi­ness lob­by­ists, that voted re­peat­edly for deficit spend­ing. Now, to hear Boehner and his lieu­tenants de­scribe it, the Repub­li­can Party is the fully re­formed in­stru­ment of a vir­tu­ous grass­roots anti-deficit move­ment.

That trans­for­ma­tion has re­quired some­thing of a Faus­tian bar­gain. In Ne­vada and Ken­tucky, tea party ac­tivists helped hard-right con­ser­va­tives in Repub­li­can Se­nate pri­maries de­feat can­di­dates the party’s es­tab­lish­ment con­sid­ered more likely to win in Novem­ber’s gen­eral elec­tion. But that un­hap­pi­ness is for­got­ten now, at least of­fi­cially.

At this point, the tea party agenda and the Repub­li­can Party agenda have largely merged.

Tea party ac­tivists say they’re an­gry about fed­eral spend­ing, the deficit, the growth of fed­eral govern­ment power and Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s health care plan. Repub­li­can lead­ers say pretty much the same things.

For Repub­li­cans who want to broaden their party’s ap­peal, the good news is that tea party ac­tivists are concerned mostly about fis­cal is­sues, not the so­cial and re­li­gious is­sues that have driven some in­de­pen­dents away from the GOP.

The bad news is that they rank un­em­ploy­ment well be­low the deficit on their list of con­cerns — the op­po­site of most vot­ers.

And, of course, the tea party, like any grass­roots move­ment, in­cludes its share of racists, xeno­phobes and ex­trem­ists, which is one rea­son Bach­mann’s Tea Party Cau­cus at­tracted only 40 of the 115 mem­bers of the House’s ex­ist­ing con­ser­va­tive cau­cus, the Repub­li­can Study Com­mit­tee.

On the tea party side, the move­ment is still di­vided among those who want to jump whole-hog into Repub­li­can pol­i­tics and those who want to steer clear of tra­di­tional party al­le­giance.

“You need to be part of a party to get can­di­dates elected,” said Mark A. Skoda, a tea party ac­tivist from Mem­phis, Tenn., who helped found the Na­tional Tea Party Fed­er­a­tion. “Stand­ing out there with signs doesn’t get any­thing done.

“I know I’ll get some hate mail for that,” he added. “There are peo­ple in the move­ment who dis­agree with me. Make sure you say I’m not a spokesman for the tea party — be­cause there is no spokesman for the tea party.”

He praised Bach­mann and other GOP lead­ers for seek­ing tea party sup­port.

“We’re not an­tag­o­nis­tic to­ward the Repub­li­can Party,” he said. “We want to hold the Repub­li­can Party ac­count­able. We want to be a change agent for the Repub­li­can Party.”

That’s al­ready hap­pened — in both di­rec­tions. Both par­ties, tea and Repub­li­can, have al­ready changed each other.

The tea party, by show­ing up at ral­lies and polling places, has strength­ened those in the GOP who want to en­er­gize the con­ser­va­tive base with a cam­paign that fo­cuses on cut­ting the deficit and re­peal­ing Obama’s health care law. The Repub­li­can lead­er­ship, by em­brac­ing the tea party mes­sage, has brought a move­ment that was once proudly non­par­ti­san ever deeper in­side the con­ven­tional-pol­i­tics tent.

Which is more likely to ab­sorb the other? That’s easy. One isn’t an or­ga­ni­za­tion; it has two years of ex­pe­ri­ence, no na­tional struc­ture and no real fundrais­ing op­er­a­tion. The other has op­er­ated since 1854, has built a for­mi­da­ble na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion and has sur­vived elec­toral dis­as­ter more than once.

The his­tory of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics is lit­tered with grass­roots move­ments that chal­lenged ex­ist­ing par­ties, only to be co-opted and ab­sorbed by them. The only thing new about the tea party is that it arose in an age when com­mu­ni­ca­tions and pol­i­tics move at light­ning speed. Yes, it’s streak­ing across the Repub­li­can sky like a comet, but look fast; it may not be there long.

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