Pundits have shifted their assessments of Tea Party clout with each swing of the pendulum in the GOP primary season — starting with debates even before the voting in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and beyond. Either the Tea Party is said to be flexing its muscles, beating the “GOP establishment.” Or it is declared to be falling apart and failing to register much impact. The fortunes of Mitt Romney seem to determine which assessment is the favor of the day: if he does poorly, the Tea Party is strong; if he wins, the Tea Party is proving to be a paper tiger.
The trouble with all such assessments is twofold. First, they focus too much on the horse-race, attempting to label some candidates “Tea Partiers” and others “establishment” — while missing the big picture of the race to the right by all candidates in the GOP race. And secondly, such assessments mistakenly hold the Tea Party to a standard it cannot meet. Let me begin with the latter point, and come back to the former.
In the research Vanessa Williamson and I did for our new book, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, we learned that there is no single organization or even a unified network constituting the Tea Party phenomenon. The Tea Party includes three forces: grassroots activism; right-wing media cheerleading; and efforts by professionally run ultra-right policy advocates and funders to leverage activist energy on behalf of cutting taxes on the rich, slashing or blocking regulations on business, and privatizing Social Security and Medicare. All three Tea Party forces aim both to boost the GOP against Barack Obama and the Democrats, and all are trying to force the Republican Party toward the right. But efforts are scattered in many organizations, including competing elite groups and hundreds of local Tea Parties that do not take direction from above. The Tea Party is a field of mutually jostling efforts. It has never had any unified capacity to nominate a candidate for president. Its effectiveness lies instead in acting as a powerful gravitational force — pulling GOP officeholder and candidates toward the right, and blocking them from compromising with Democrats.
At the elite level, funding and lobbying are used by Tea Party Express, Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, and other professionalized operations to keep GOP candidates and officeholders oriented to cutting taxes and slashing public spending. Grassroots activists, meanwhile, stage protests and have organized hundreds of local groups across the country. They are not only focused on cuts in taxes and public spending. Indeed, the older, white, conservative-minded people who make up the grassroots are often beneficiaries of public spending on Social Security, Medicare, and military veterans’ benefits. They more specifically oppose “welfare spending” on the poor, immigrants, and the young — all of whom are seen as “freeloaders” who have not earned their way. Grassroots Tea Partiers are also very concerned about immigration and want crackdowns on undocumented people. In addition, more than half of them are religiously minded social conservatives opposed to abortion and anxious to enforce traditional family and sexual norms.
As the raucous GOP debates and primaries have unfolded, we have seen the Tea Party gravitational pulls at work. Tea Party sympathizers and activists are highly motivated voters. They pay attention to debates and turn out, even in low-turnout caucuses. But they do not all vote for the same candidates. Libertarians may stick with Ron Paul, while social conservative Tea Partiers have found Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum appealing. Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, and even Mitt Romney have all captured quite a few Tea Party votes at particular moments and in specific states. Perry ended up losing most Tea Party support when he suggested that Republicans should favor subsidized college education for children of undocumented immigrants. That is really a no-no in popular Tea Party thinking. And Romney made headway against Gingrich in Florida, even with many Tea Party supporters, when he ran ads bashing Gingrich for working with Freddie Mac. Tea Party voters blame the recent financial meltdown on federal pressures to give mortgages to low-income minorities.
As of this writing — in mid-February — Rick Santorum is the latest non-Romney to sweep ahead in national polling among Republicans. He seems to have considerable popular Tea Party support, especially I suspect among less wealthy conservative Republicans, who are often Christian evangelicals suspicious of Romney for his previous liberal stands in Massachusetts and perhaps for his Mormonism as well. Romney’s rich-guy persona has also become more visible during the GOP battles. Romney may well still do quite well among Tea Party Republicans making over $100,000 a year, but less privileged conservatives are not enthusiastic. At the same time, however, quite a few Tea Party elite organizations are queasy about Rick Santorum — above all because they worry that he cannot win in the general election against Barack Obama. Romney has the organization and business backing to have a better shot.
At the recent Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington DC, long-time anti-tax warrior Grover Norquist made a plea to conservatives. We in the GOP do not necessarily need an inspiring president, he said, just one who will sign the conservative bills a GOP-led Congress sends his way. He urged conservatives to settle for good enough, and get on with the fight against Obama — in effect, a plea to accept Romney, now that he has fallen all over himself to pledge loyalty to conservative principles. This is not the popular Tea Party way of looking at things; many at the grassroots are looking for a kick-ass style of angry conservative leadership. But it is the reason why many Tea Party-connected elite groups would be willing to settle for Mitt Romney, if only he could manage to amass enough votes to get through the GOP primaries with a bare majority.
Elite Tea Party-connected forces understand that the GOP primary process has extracted strong policy promises from Romney along with all other candidates. Romney will have no choice, if he becomes president, but to sign extreme right-wing bills: abolition of ObamaCare, extension of the Bush tax cuts, plus more cuts for the very rich, and cuts in social spending, including eventual privatization of major entitlements after current cohorts of older Americans have enjoyed their retirement benefits.
Which brings me back to the problem with focusing just on the horse race, and trying to say which candidate in the GOP field is a “Tea Party candidate” versus an “establishment candidate.” There are some differences, to be sure. But all of these candidates have had to pledge fealty to major grassroots and elite Tea Party priorities. And whichever one of them takes the GOP nomination in the end will get the support of virtually all Tea Party voters and funders for the main event: the fight to boot Barack Obama from office in November 2012.
I am not at all sure the Tea Party-infused GOP will triumph in 2012. The upcoming election will feature about three out of every five eligible voters going to the polls, rather than just two out of five as in 2010 — and the larger electorate will be younger, more racially diverse, and less tilted toward Republicans. In this larger electorate, the Tea Party and its priorities will have less sway. And the bloodletting among Republicans competing for Tea Party approval in the Republican primaries this spring will leave the eventual winner less appealing to other American voters. Still, in a general election unpredictable crises or events can tip the majority. If the economy takes a nosedive, or if a foreign crisis can be blamed on President Obama, a Republican could very well win in November, even if things look messy in the GOP right now.
Should a Republican President move into the White House in 2013, he will probably be backed by GOP majorities in the House and Senate that will send radical bills to his desk within weeks. He will carry through many Tea Party priorities, even generally unpopular ones. Ultra-conservative voters and funders — called the “Tea Party” for now, but perhaps operating under different labels later — have had a powerful impact through the Republican Party; and they will continue to push from the right and threaten primary challenges for years to come. The Republican Party is radicalized, and that is not likely to change in the foreseeable future. Republican officeholders will be pledged to follow rightward priorities — and aroused activists and funders will hold their feet to the fire.