The Tea Party and the GOP: Change You Already Believed In

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you. I’ll just add a little to the introduction by saying that I’ve been covering the Republican Party and the conservative and libertarian movements since 2006, and I’ve covered the Tea Party movement since February 2009, when I followed the Washington activists who put together one of the movement’s first events in LaFayette Square. So what I want to do today is explain how the Tea Party developed so quickly, analyze its impact on the Republican Party, and suggest where the merger of this bottom-up movement and top-down political organization is going to head next.

I. History

I’d like to start with a comparison which, hopefully, which demonstrate just how incredible the tea party movement’s capture of the willing Republican Party has been.

In January 2001, George W. Bush assumed the presidency after an election that a sizable number of Americans – including pluralities of self-described Democrats and liberals – thought he had won illegitimately. Bush began with a diminished Republican force of 50 senators and 222 members of the House. Nonetheless, Bush achieved the first items on his agenda with cooperation from Democrats and not much effective opposition from liberals. He passed tax cuts and education reform with Democratic support, while, the fastest-growing liberal grassroots group, focused on some piecemeal issues. It campaigned for campaign finance reform, and it organized energy boycotts as responses to rolling blackouts in California. In the first eight months of the Bush presidency, before 9/11, liberals failed to present a coherent challenge to Republicans.

In January 2009, Barack Obama assumed the presidency after the biggest popular vote victory since 1988, bringing with him 58 Democratic senators and 256 Democratic members of the House. He passed his first agenda item, a $787 billion stimulus package, without any Republican votes in the House and a massive struggle in the Senate. That Republican opposition was buttressed by immediate and effective grassroots protests.

The day of the Senate vote, an activist named Mary Rakovich organized a protest against the stimulus in Fort Myers, Fla. One day before Obama signed the stimulus legislation into law, an activist named Kelli Carender organized a protest of the stimulus in Seattle. Two days after Obama signed the legislation, CNBC commentator Rick Santelli launched into an on-air screed about the $75 billion Homeowners Affordability and Stability Plan, and that directly inspired the first tea party protests on February 27, 2009. Republicans immediately glommed on to the movement, to the extent that RNC Chairman Michael Steele asks but is not allowed to speak at a Chicago event. April 15, 2009, hundreds of tea party protests were held around America, and many of them featured appearances by Republican leaders. John Boehner, the GOP leader in the House, spent the day traveling to tea party rallies across California.

I’m truncating a lot of history here. The Senate of 2001 included many Democrats who were interested, for ideological and electoral reasons, in working with the Republicans. The Senate of 2009 included 40 Republicans, none of whom had any interest in working with Democrats. But it’s important to note how quickly the Republican Party assumed an oppositional stance and how quickly the conservative base rallied to support that stance.

Why did this happen? Two reasons. First, the base of the Republican Party had been demanding this kind of opposition for a very long time, and the perception that John McCain was, like George W. Bush, a big government collaborator, depressed some Republican turnout in 2010. (One good example of this is Ohio, which has a fairly static population, and where the GOP vote fell from 2,859,768 in 2004 to 2,677,820 in 2008.) In my own reporting on the Tea Party movement, I’ve encountered dozens of self-identified conservatives who either didn’t vote in 2008 or tamped down their usual level of involvement.

The second reason: Media. The conservatives who would make up the Tea Party movement had immediate access to an immense number of organizations and social networks. I’m not just talking about the new tools that existed in January 2009, such as Facebook and Twitter. I’m talking about the conservative organizations that had developed over decades starting with the Heritage Foundation, continuing with talk radio, and culminating in Fox News. The Tea Party movement had a strong ideological foundation and a welcoming, listening major party from its inception.

II. Media

There really hasn’t ever been anything before in our politics like that instant access to organizations that can supplement your work and even do your organizing for you. The reporter Will Bunch, in his book “The Backlash,” uses an interesting example to demonstrate just how much access to new information and like-minded people has changed since conservative rebellions of the past. He contrasts the ease with which tea party activists can find information with a billboard from the 1950s that tells motorists the address of a PO Box they can send a letter to in order to find out about an “Impeach Earl Warren” campaign.

Compare that to the information flow of 2009. I’ve mentioned the Internet already, and you can’t understate its importance, but I think the importance of television has been underrated in explaining the movement. The New York Times poll of Tea Party activists than ran in April 2010 found that 47 percent of activists got most of their information from TV, which is about double the number that get their news from the Internet. Again, that Internet number is huge, and I’ll address it in a bit, but that TV number tells us just how many activists watch Fox News. And what was on Fox News in early 2009? Glenn Beck’s program, which started the day before Obama’s inauguration. Hours of interview shows that gave safe platforms to Republicans and critics of the Obama administration. And plenty of promotional segments for the Tea Party movement.

The conservative media made would-be Tea Partyers aware that they had plenty of like-minded people out there, and provided them with the information that proved their doubts about the Obama agenda had merit. It was the Internet that really drilled this in. Activists tell pollsters – and have frequently told me – that they often hear about ominous programs via Glenn Beck or talk radio and then they go to the web to get more information. That information can be provided by think tanks but it can just as easily be provided by politicians or their staffs, operating Twitter accounts and cutting through the media filter, or by other Tea Partyers filming their events and uploading the content to YouTube. According to the Times poll, more Tea Partyers trust their fellow activists than trust information from newspapers.

This media effect should have clear from the very start of the movement. Kelli Carender, that Seattle activist, had no idea how to organize a rally or why, specifically, she opposed the stimulus. She organized it by going online and finding conservative activists and scholars who backed her up and could help her cause. She found a list of economists who opposed the stimulus that had been compiled by the Cato Institute, the libertarian think tank funded in part by the Koch family fortune, and she got Fox News contributor and conservative columnist Michelle Malkin to promote the rally online. She did all this by googling. And if she kept googling she could have found a stimulus money-tracking site set up by a staffer at George Mason University, or social networking tools like Ning that connected different conservative activists.

III. Politics

So, that’s how the tea party got organized. How is changing the Republican Party? We’re probably all familiar with a few cases in which tea party activists aided insurgent candidates to the detriment of candidates recruited by Republican leaders. But I’d argue that there’s been too much focus on how these candidates are upsetting Republican plans. Whether they’ve been winning or losing, they’ve enforced a conservative orthodoxy that Republicans generally believe in anyway. In this sense, tea party activists have been pushing on open doors.

What do Tea Partyers demand from the GOP? Let’s use, as a screen for tea party belief, the “Contract from America.” This is a 10-point plan for leadership that tea party activists, helped by FreedomWorks, put together after months of voting online to decide the most important issues. Here they are:

1. Protect the Constitution

2. Reject Cap & Trade

3. Demand a Balanced Budget

4. Enact Fundamental Tax Reform

5. Restore Fiscal Responsibility & Constitutionally Limited Government

6. End Runaway Government Spending

7. Defund, Repeal, & Replace Government-run Health Care

8. Pass an ‘All-of-the-Above” Energy Policy

9. Stop the Pork

10. Stop the Tax Hikes

The first thing you probably notice about this list is the overlap – items one and five are basically the same, as are items three and six. The second thing you notice is that the legislative agenda items basically sync up with agenda that congressional Republicans had at the start of the Obama presidency – extension of the Bush tax cuts, more drilling, and no carbon tax or carbon regulation legislation.

What effect has the tea party had on this agenda, considering that Republicans have been supporting it anyway? The Tea Party provided pressure and cover for Republicans to support this – and to oppose Obama initiatives, even when the president was very popular. It also laundered (I’m using that word neutrally) the arguments that libertarian and conservative think tanks and media were making for the Republican agenda and against the Democratic agenda. You can see one example of how this works in Kate Zernike’s new book on the tea party movement, “Boiling Mad.” At one point Zernike notes that Tea Partyers refer to cap-and-trade as “cap-and-tax.” That’s true, but they use that term because organizations like Americans for Prosperity and guests on Fox News use it. With the rise of the Tea Party movement, messaging like this took on credibility, because regular Americans were using it and repeating it back to reporters.

And what effect has the Tea Party had on the Republican Party’s nominees? There’s a popular misunderstanding that the Washington political establishment prefers compromised, moderate Republicans to conservative Republicans, because it can control the former and not the latter. I just don’t think this matches up with reality, especially because of what the tea party movement is about. Are “establishment” Republicans often more liberal on social issues than the Republican base? Yes. But the tea party isn’t about social issues. Establishment Republicans are, with some rare exceptions, just as conservative as Tea Partyers on economic issues. But until the bottom fell out of the economy and voters turned on the Democrats, Republican strategists assumed that will reluctantly endorse people like Charlie Crist because polls tell them they can win.

I encounter very few Tea Partyers who actually believe this, but my conversations with Republican strategists tell me that it’s true. Crist is a great example – Republicans like Jon Cornyn wanted him to run, honestly, because polls showed him easily keeping the seat while Marco Rubio was in a dead heat with Democrats. They wanted to keep an expensive Florida race off the map. They miscalculated, and that had a lot to do with the collapse of faith in the administration and stimulus that Obama supported.

The Future

So if the Tea Partyers were right about what the Republican Party needed to do to win, and if the establishment was too worried about standing for what the party wanted but is now back on the ball, what happens next?

We’re coming to the end of the intra-Republican electoral wins. The biggest electoral triumphs of the Tea Party occurred in May and August – the latter one just ended this week. I’m talking about the defeats of Bob Bennett and Lisa Murkowski. But it’s important to understand just how few votes were required to oust those two senators. Bennett’s defeat was decided by a majority of around 3,500 activists who attended the Utah GOP convention. Murkowski’s defeat was at the hands of around 100,000 Alaska GOP primary voters. We’re talking about decisions that ended the careers of two senators made by a total of around 53,000 people. That’s just not repeatable many more times on a much larger scale. In the remaining primary states, mostly in Delaware, New Hampshire, and New York, the Tea Party has a few chances to get its candidates over the finish line, but we’re seeing evidence that the establishment sees this coming and has its antibodies already working to protect it.

So the next thing to look at is the Republican class that will arrive in Congress in 2010. Its members will either owe their jobs to Tea Party activists or have gotten their issue stances in order to protect against the Tea Party. So what do they do?

The politician who’s rightly seen as the ideological vessel of the tea party movement is Sen. Jim DeMint. I’d argue that he’s more important to the movement than its bigger star, Sarah Palin, because DeMint has actually gotten specific about what he wants to do in power and why he thinks tea party activists can help him do it. He thinks that Congress needs to reckon with popular entitlements and spending programs, and it needs to cut them even though this has been, consistently, politically disastrous. His theory is that things are bad enough that Americans understand what needs to be cut. They are ready to give up benefits and programs that, in the past, they’ve supported, because they realize how bad things are. That was the not-so-hidden subtext of Glenn Beck’s big rally on the mall last week. Beck, who’s done so much to inform the Tea Parties, told a crowd of 100,000 or so people in person, and many in the TV audience, that they needed to look inward and look back to God and be ready to restore the pre-New Deal vision of America.

Is this good for the Republican Party? I think it is. When is an active and powerful base bad for a political party? The issue that activists and Republicans have to deal with, as they look to power, is whether they can be as successful at convincing Americans of their agenda as they have been at convincing themselves. They need a country that has given up on Democratic policies largely because of high unemployment to be convinced that their policies will hurt in the short term and work in the long term. If all the Tea Party does is help the GOP create momentum for tax cuts, it will have failed. It’s spending cuts, painful ones, that 40 years of conservative activism have been asking for, and 2 years of Tea Party activism have tried to convince the country that it needs.

Let’s take some questions.