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The End of the Tea Party

November 3, 2010

As a quick look back at any McCain-Palin rally in the fall of 2008 will confirm, the Tea Party movement hardly began with the inauguration of Barack Obama. But for all intents and purposes, it ended yesterday. As it turns out, the Tea Party's looming demise stems not from its failure at the polls, but from its now largely successful transformation of the GOP.
Not, of course, according to the media reaction to Tuesday's red midterm tsunami. Pointing to easy wins by Tea Party favorites Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, the New York Times announced, "Victories Suggest Wider Appeal of Tea Party." While CNN declared "Election Projections Fuel Tea Party Fervor," the Wall Street Journal proclaimed "Tea Party Plan for Next Phase."
But largely lost in that seeming consensus about the triumph of right-wing populist anger is the inescapable truth about the Tea Partiers. That is, these older, whiter and more ideologically conservative voters are just Republicans by another name. And by the time the 2012 GOP presidential primaries roll around, they will be indistinguishable from the rest of the Republican hard line base.
To be sure, the 2010 exit polls confirmed that Tea Baggers are just Republicans who shout louder. The national House exit poll found that 40% of those surveyed supported the Tea Party. That's virtually identical to the 41% favorable opinion of the Republican Party. Unsurprisingly, their behavior in the voting booth was also indistinguishable, as the GOP captured 87% of the Tea Baggers' ballots.
Which is what precisely what months of polling suggested. In March, a Quinnipiac University poll found that 74 percent are Republicans or independent voters leaning Republican while 77 percent voted for Sen. John McCain in 2008. Those findings echo a February CNN survey which similarly demolished the myth of the Tea Bagger-as-independent. As CNN polling director Keating Holland noted:

"87 percent say they would vote for the GOP candidate in their congressional district if there were no third-party candidate endorsed by the Tea Party."

And they just don't vote like Republicans; they look like them, too.
Earlier this year, Gallup and Winston Group like Quinnipiac and CNN before them confirmed that the vast majority of Tea Baggers are ideologically conservative and consistently vote Republican. As Gallup concluded:

"Tea Party supporters are decidedly Republican and conservative in their leanings. Also, compared with average Americans, supporters are slightly more likely to be male and less likely to be lower-income."

And very white. While 63% of white men and 58% of white women voted Republican in Tuesday's House races, Tea Partiers were no doubt well represented in their ranks. .(Their presence is also reflected by the GOP's embrace of the Tea Party's Birther, Deather, Obama-as-Muslim and other myths.) Of the 8% of those claiming illegal immigration was the most important issue facing the nation, a whopping 69% backed the GOP. Again, as a University of Washington study suggested in April, the Tea Party faithful were doubtless among them in large numbers:

Approximately 45 % whites either strongly or somewhat approve of the movement. Of those, only 35% believe blacks to be hardworking, only 45 % believe blacks are intelligent, and only 41% think that blacks are trustworthy. Perceptions of Latinos aren't much different. While 50% of white tea party supporters believe Latinos to be hardworking, only 39% think them intelligent, and at 37%, fewer tea party supporters believe Latinos to be trustworthy.

Despite their much-publicized purge of party moderates, the Tea Baggers' policy prescriptions are the pretty much the same toxic brew cooked up by the Republican leadership. The Tea Party "Contract from America" and the GOP "Pledge to America" are almost carbon copies. Both call for the repeal of health care reform and opposition to cap-and-trade energy legislation. Both support making the budget-busting Bush tax cuts permanent, including the repeal of the estate tax and another $700 billion windfall for the wealthiest 2% of Americans. While only the GOP Pledge did not echo the Tea Party call for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, Republican stars from Tim Pawlenty and Lindsey Graham to Marco Rubio and Rand Paul did. (Of course, while Tea Bagger and Republican alike demand deep federal spending cuts, neither will state what those cuts might be.)
And the GOP is not only reading from the same playbook as the Tea Partiers, its new leadership long ago welcomed its players with open arms. South Carolina Senator Jim Demint, who today authored a Wall Street Journal op-ed telling them to "Put on your boxing gloves...The fight begins today," said last December:

"We need to stop looking at the tea parties as separate from the Republican Party. If we do that, we can stand up and create the biggest tent of all."

In the House, Tea Party caucus chair Michele Bachmann announced her intent to land the number three slot in the Republican leadership. But months ago, she explained her strategy for Republican renewal:

"Well, it's embrace the tea party movement with full arms...if the Republican Party is wise, they will allow themselves to be re-defined by the tea party movement. And I hope that that will be the case."

Indeed, it now is. As the Wall Street Journal reported:

Ms. Martin said Tea Party Patriots is finalizing plans for a summit and "orientation" Nov. 14 in Washington for all freshman members of Congress. Newly elected officials will meet "face to face" with 200 or more local tea-party coordinators from around the country, she said. Her group is working on a legislative agenda to present then. The focus: Balance the federal budget; and repeal "100 percent repeal" of the health-care overhaul.
"We're going to talk to them about what we expect from them," she said, "and what they can expect from us if they don't uphold our core values."

Jenny Beth Martin need not worry. She had them at hello. And visa versa.
Any Republican White House hopeful heading to Iowa to kick-start the 2012 campaign ignores that at his or her peril. The hardliners who in 2008 chose Mike Huckabee while citing immigration as their number one issue during a time of economic crisis are waiting.
Back in April 2009, the Daily Show's Jon Stewart offered some sound advice for frothing at the mouth Tea Baggers, "I think you might be confusing tyranny with losing." Now that Republicans are winning again, they won't have nearly so much to be angry about.
UPDATE: MSNBC calculated that just 32% of Tea Party candidates won nationally. No doubt, Christine O'Donnell, Sharron Angle and Ken Buck cost the GOP Senate seats in Delaware, Nevada and Colorado. Nevertheless, the right will join hands and sing kumbaya in time for 2012.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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