Saturday, May 15, 2010

Don't Look for Salvation in the Tea Party Movement

Reihan Salam is a smart guy, but I don't know what to make of this:
If large numbers of Republicans outside of the South and the Mountain West win seats in 2010, particularly suburban swing seats, there will be a built-in constituency for a more pragmatic brand of center-right politics. The Tea Party could pave the way for a more inclusive political movement that embraces the same fiscal conservatism while leaving aside more polarizing cultural messages, as seen in the Scott Brown campaign. This would parallel the evolution of the antiwar movement between 2003 to 2008, from a fringe movement that alienated moderates to a tendency that came to embrace a large majority of the public.
The Tea Party movement could help increase GOP turnout in the midterm elections, which of course could help the GOP win seats. Given that, statistically speaking, the opposition party should pick up seats in the upcoming election, and anti-incumbent sentiments are high, all's the better for the GOP.

But Scott Brown is not "the exception who proves the rule." Scott Brown got a lot of support because he was a Republican poised to win "Ted Kennedy's seat". If he were an incumbent in Arizona or Utah, the same Tea Partiers who sent him checks would be launching a primary challenge and calling for his head on a platter. The Tea Party movement is not about making the rest of the nation more like Massachusetts. For better or for worse, Scott Brown cares about being reelected, so you can expect that he will be playing to the larger population of Massachusetts voters as opposed to trying to meet Tea Party litmus tests.

Meanwhile, the Tea Party has not come out for one thing - not one thing - that would substantively improve the nation. When they were talking about protesting the auto industry bailout in Detroit, Motor City Tea Partiers objected. They're not for Medicare cuts - they're in the "Keep your government hands off my Medicare" camp. In fact, one of the things that seems to motivate them is the thought that healthcare reform might be funded in part by cuts to Medicare. They're not for Social Security reform. They're not for cuts in military spending. They're not for cuts in subsidies for agriculture or ethanol. They're not for ending the mortgage interest deduction. Sure, they're for cuts - but only cuts that affect other people. In that sense they're part of a grand American tradition, but....

Meanwhile, in Maine,
In Maine, the newly adopted GOP platform outlines various changes, although its ambiguous language leaves the meaning of many sections open to interpretation. There’s a call to restore “Constitutional Law as the basis for the judiciary,” to “reassert the principle that ‘Freedom of Religion’ does not mean ‘Freedom from Religion,’ ” to “return to the principles of Austrian Economics,” and to remove “obstacles created by government” to the private development of natural gas, oil, coal, and nuclear power.

Other parts are clearer: a rejection of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, elimination of the US Department of Education and the Federal Reserve, and a freeze and prohibition on stimulus spending. Healthcare is “not a right” but “a service” that can be addressed only by using “market based solutions.”
To the extent that the Tea Party is responsible for that platform, as is suggested by the article, what part of it sounds like a sensible, carefully crafted platform for the future, and what part of it sounds like reactionary populism? (For "more of the same," see also the "Contract From America".) Is that platform more likely to help or hinder the state's GOP candidates?

Reihan suggests that the Tea Party movement will allow the GOP to move away from "more polarizing cultural messages". Well, if the Contract From America signifies anything, that movement won't include religious tolerance. And if Arizona signifies anything, it won't be a greater tolerance toward immigrants. Whether or not it's mentioned, being pro-life will remain a central part of the GOP platform. So... when and how does the party shift back from cultural issues to the economic - freed by the Tea Party to cut any spending it wants, except for the military, Medicare, Social Security, and agricultural or energy subsidies?

Yes, the Tea Party may transform the Republican Party, and may help it gain seats. But really, what political ideology improves itself by harnessing itself to a populist movement, at best substituting one set of litmus tests for another - and more realistically, adding the Tea Party's litmus tests to those already adopted through years of similar dependence on the religious right.

In his final comment on the anti-war movement, Reihan confuses the message with the messenger and ends up with a bad analogy. Sure, some of the groups that organized anti-Iraq war protests were unpopular with the public, but before we went into Iraq the anti-war movement was winning the debate. As one would expect, once the war was launched the public got behind the war, the President, and the armed forces.

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