By Tina Fetner
After making a strong push to in the 2010 Congressional midterm elections, the Tea Party was perceived by some to be unstoppable, by others to be falling apart at the seams. However, the political power held by this movement (or at least, their perceived power) made a major impact on the candidate selection process for the Republican presidential nomination. The primary battle currently underway, in which Republican grassroot supporters, party insiders and political pundits embrace and then discard candidate after candidate suggests that the Tea Party has, at least temporarily, loosened the Republican Party leadership’s grip on the political process.
Like every social movement, the Tea Party is not a homogenous entity; it is a diverse collection of individuals and organizations that may not see eye to eye. That said, Tea Party supporters seem to have coalesced around a platform that is anti-establishment, anti-government, anti-intellectual, and most of all anti-Obama. However, the Tea Party’s quest for purity on the first three issues may undermine their ability to achieve their ultimate goal of electing a Republican to replace Obama. It certainly has livened up the Republican presidential primary by including a large and colorful cast of characters, several of whom have little support among Republican Party officials.
The Tea Party’s distrust of the Republican Party brought forward several primary candidates who might otherwise not have had the chance to be included in the process. Candidates like Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, a staunch conservative who might have appealed to more establishment Republicans, was all but ignored in the earliest rounds of campaigning in favor of those who used more aggressive anti-establishment rhetoric. In addition, this call for anti-establishment candidates left open the door for Donald Trump and Herman Cain, who have never held elected office, to be given more serious consideration by the news media than they might have in another election cycle.
The Republican Party line is already rather severely anti-government, but the Tea Party’s support of somewhat extreme forms of libertarianism eroded the qualifications of anyone who has participated in governing. Ron Paul’s libertarian views have been longstanding and support for him rather steady, but many other candidates have moved to more libertarian stances. For example, Herman Cain’s disdain for foreign relations mirrored Paul’s attitudes, and when his ineptitude on these issues became clear, support for Cain did not erode. However, Rick Perry’s experience governing the state of Texas was held against him by the audiences of the primary debates; vaccinating and offering public education to immigrant children received strong negative reactions.
Religious Right candidates Michelle Bachman and Rick Santorum have long appealed to the more anti-intellectual, and especially anti-science, leanings of voters. Each of these candidates was able to successfully fold in to their agendas more Tea Party-friendly libertarian claims as well. Bachman’s criticism of Rick Perry’s HPV vaccination program made clear to a broad public that she is tied not just to biblical literalism, but a whole host of pseudo-scientific claims. This anti-intellectual strain in the Republican Party is longstanding, but there is also something new in how preposterous a claim or conspiracy theory primary voters will accept. The birth certificate controversy is a case in point. This issue was included in news coverage of the primary race for months, despite its obvious falsehood.
The Republican presidential primary has been a circus, and I think the energy that the Tea Party has generated has been why this colorful cast of characters has been given such serious consideration. However, the question remains whether this energy will be enough to oust President Obama in the next election. Will, after all of this focus on finding the right candidate, Tea Party supporters come out in large numbers to vote for whatever Republican is nominated, or will they become disgusted by a candidate who does not measure up to their expectations? My guess is that this is the question of the day and that voter turnout on the Right will be the difference in the upcoming Presidential election.