The headlines tell of stories about the "GOP civil war" between the establishment and the Tea Party. Every day brings more bloggers and talking heads debating "intraparty bloodletting" and "inner-GOP sniping." But as far as I can tell, the only people who really think there is a civil war either work on cable news shows or at the Democratic National Committee. The rest of us have noticed that resentment has been replaced with resolve; the banners have given way to primary ballots. The "war" is over.
And while the White House gurus mull over how they're going to handle the Tea Party movement this fall in the midterms—there are conflicting reports as to whether they'll run national ads demonizing the movement as "extremist" or targeted ads against specific "fringe" candidates endorsed by the Tea Party—the administration looks increasingly out of step with the rest of the country.
Even former President Bill Clinton recently called the Tea Party movement "totally understandable" and said that it "reflects the feeling of a lot of Americans that they're getting the shaft." Similarly, Gen. Colin Powell, who endorsed candidate Barack Obama, suggested the president "shift the way in which he has been doing things." Americans, he said, are overloaded by too much spending: "There are so many rocks in our knapsack now that we're having trouble carrying it . . . It is not just me picking on the president. It's reflected in the polling."
Powell is right. The political center has shifted. Polls show that independents have moved right and are staying there. A recent one, conducted by Democratic pollster Doug Schoen in late August for the conservative Independent Women's Voice, calls it a "fundamental realignment" as independents now lean to the right by 2 to 1. The survey asked independents what they would like candidates to do. The list of answers is clear: "Decrease the size and scope of government, cut spending and taxes, balance the budget, reduce the federal debt, reduce the power of special interests and unions, repeal and replace the healthcare legislation, and decrease partisanship." Most Tea Partyers would agree with just about everything on that list. So would most Republicans. And they'd all agree with independents who said that they're not getting those things from Washington.
Notice what's not on that list: climate change, financial regulation, bank bailouts, auto bailouts, troop surges, lawsuits on immigration reform, and repealing "don't ask, don't tell." (The only reason healthcare reform made the list is because independents want it scaled back.) Notice too that these are precisely what we have been getting from Washington.
It's no accident that the issues important to independents are strikingly similar to the ones important to Tea Partyers. Despite what the White House says, the Tea Party agenda is more mainstream than the Obama agenda. That's why, by a 52-to-40 margin, a majority of likely voters say their views are closer to Sarah Palin's than to President Obama's, according to Rasmussen Reports.
Among all Americans, the federal debt now has become the "top perceived threat" to the future of our nation—even topping terrorism in Gallup polls from this summer—driven by Tea Party supporters' heightened concerns about fiscal irresponsibility. The national debt has become its own national security issue.
"Nobody knows how [the Tea Party movement] will play out, but we are seeing something big—something homegrown, broad-based and independent," former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal. "In part it is a rising up of those who truly believe America is imperiled and truly mean to save her. The dangers, both present and potential, are obvious."
There may be a few wacky candidates this cycle, but there's nothing "extremist" or "fringe" about worrying about a government seemingly out of control and the threat it creates to our nation's future. If the parties were smart, they'd start giving voters what they're looking for: less taxing and spending, and fewer rocks in the knapsack, as General Powell would say.