The Tea Party is dead. Long live the Tea Party.
The media—both the mainstream and blogosphere variations—have indulged a nearly hysterical and at times schizophrenic debate about whether the Tea Party's influence is dominating elections this year or is in gasping death rattles.
Check out this ABC News story on Wednesday: "Primary Results and the Tea Party: Is the Movement Gaining or Losing Influence?" There are hundreds of similar stories.
In Alaska, the Tea Party candidate, Joe Miller, is on the verge of ousting incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski, we hear.
In Arizona, incumbent Sen. John McCain survives a challenge from Tea Party favorite J.D. Hayworth, we're told. [Read McCain's first person account of being a prisoner of war.]
On The Real Housewives of Washington DC, Tea Party choice Lynda confronts the establishment's Michaele on the polo field, we learn.
What does it all mean? What will become of the Tea Party after November? I keep waiting for Teddy Roosevelt to lead a Republican Party walk-out. Or at least a big-eared Ross Perot-type, pointer and charts in hand, to graph the endgame of this existential dilemma.
The Tea Party.
The Tea Party.
If we are going to speak of "the" Tea Party, then my vote goes for dead. It is a Frankenstein monster, a mass of dead tissue and bones that have been brought to life by Democratic strategists and an unwitting media. The Tea Party. It approaches, smashing the columns of the establishment and gorging on delicious candidates who refuse to drink the Tea Party, err, tea. It is Godzilla in downtown Manhattan, crumpled cars and dusty rubble in its wake.
There is no tea "party." It is not a monolithic beast. There is no it. It does not endorse candidates.
Democratic strategists would have us believe otherwise. It is to their benefit to portray The. Tea. Party. as the radical rightwing branch of the Republican Party; one that has swallowed the moderates and begun eating its own, the Donner Party of contemporary politics.
And, hell, if I were a Democratic operative eyeballing abysmal poll numbers showing the American public in full revulsion of the liberal policies coming out of Washington, I'd try to invent a bogeyman too. Sure, we're awful, but look how crazy the Republicans might be. Do you want to take your chances with these nutjobs?
Here's the problem for the Democrats: Those nutjobs are their constituents. Those rightwing radicals are not all rightwing radicals; many of them are their voters. Yes, even in Democratic districts.
The mainstream media has been complicit in portraying the Tea Party as The. Tea. Party. I don't believe it's done on purpose. (Although after learning of the clowns comprising Journolist—who did indeed show that there is a cabal of freaky liberal journalists conniving to influence policy and elections—I can't be as sure as I was once.) In this case, I think it's a kind of sloppiness. Political reporters take the majority of their information from political operatives. The Democrats have been able to instill remarkable discipline in framing the Tea Party as a crazy aunt of the GOP rather than a grassroots movement of varying opinions. After hearing it enough, after it "takes," reporters, copy editors, and producers begin to use the phrase as shorthand for a rather complicated and diverse crowd.
It's just easier to say "Tea Party candidate J.D. Hayworth put a scare into the McCain campaign" than it is to say "J.D. Hayworth, who has generated support among voters who have recoiled at the extreme polices coming out of Washington, D.C., as well as voters alienated by McCain's tendency to take a perverse pride in offending his own supporters as a way to retain the mantle of 'maverick,' put a scare into the McCain campaign."
Try fitting that into an eight-second soundbite on MSNBC. Of course, half of the MSNBC anchors are Democratic operatives, so they delight in portraying The Tea Party as a Republican-inspired train wreck.
What is worrisome is that some within the Tea Party multitude have drunk the Kool-Aid and are viewing themselves as The. Tea. Party. A party in need of leadership, of course. Political wannabes are scrambling to establish themselves as spokesmen or representatives of The. Tea. Party.
And they will kill it, once it becomes a true it—a singular body with top-down organization, rules, conventions, official ideological platforms, and blowhards claiming to know what's best for the cause.
What makes Tea Party activism a true phenomenon in today's political landscape is that it is an amoeba-like mass of citizens representing the center-right position of most Americans. There is no official platform that these activists sign to join the club.
Democrats paint this movement as radical and extreme, and they delight when the news cameras and newspaper photographers zero in on the ones in the crowds holding signs comparing Barack Obama to Hitler. Try not to blame the media for this. It would be like blaming a toddler for eating too much candy. The media thrives on the colorful, the extreme, the confrontational. That's what is deemed newsworthy.
It doesn't paint a true portrait of the diverse and frustrated collection of Americans who feel ignored and patronized by our current government.
So, yeah, they're angry all right, but Democratic candidates would be well-advised to acknowledge that this frustrated majority of Americans are not sheep manipulated by devious rightwing Republicans. It should be remembered that the Tea Party phenomenon grew out of the angry healthcare reform town hall meetings last year.
Practically every single poll that wasn't rigged showed the American public solidly opposed to Obama's effort to nationalize healthcare. Other than the professional left (to use Robert Gibbs's accurate term), most Democrats saw that, politically, outright government healthcare wasn't possible. So, reluctantly, they scaled back their ambitions. Next we got the "public option"—a euphemism for the semi-nationalization of healthcare.
Americans were infuriated. Not only was this Congress ignoring their concerns, the congressional leadership made clear it would find a way to pass healthcare reform one way or another—the public be damned.
And from this—like a battle-armed Athena stepping fully formed from the forehead of Zeus—the Tea Party emerged overnight. The notorious town halls held by Democratic members of Congress to explain why healthcare was good for Americans (but they just didn't know it yet) turned into gladiator arenas in which these members fought and were usually massacred by their own constituents.
Not getting it, the Democrats tried to portray this protest movement as, once again, mobs engineered by crafty Republicans. As if any political operative, anywhere in the country on either side of the aisle, could turn out thousands of angry constituents at mere congressional town halls.
This arrogant dismissal of legitimate concerns by voters only further infuriated them. Consider the fate of Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas—an incumbent, her poll numbers have crashed through the basement into the low 30s and pretty much ensured the end of her career. It started when she refused to talk to her own constituents—refusing to enter the angry arena of town halls—and referring to those who opposed the liberal healthcare reform package as "fearmongers." [See who donates the most money to Lincoln's campaign.]
Turns out those "fearmongers" weren't Republican operatives after all. They were the great majority—some 60 percent—of her own constituents and voters. They were conservatives and independents; they were Republicans and Independents and even Democrats. They were no monolithic body with a clear platform. They were America.
Bye Bye, Blanche.
The Tea Party has since gone on and turned the election year upside down. It is not some emergent third party. It is an ever-morphing reaction of Americans responding hotly to the arrogance and condescension coming out of Washington, DC.
It is a reaction against unprecedented debt.
A reaction to high taxes.
A reaction to the effort to nationalize healthcare.
A reaction to the bailing out of and semi-nationalization of General Motors.
It is a reaction to being lectured by Obama and leading Democrats for having the nerve to ask that the mosque and Islamic cultural center be built somewhere other than two blocks from ground zero, a constant reminder of the most savage attack perpetrated on America since Pearl Harbor.
It is a reaction to the failure of the federal government to address border security and immigration—and, again, the lectures from the Obama administration that suggest all Americans are racist simply because they want the immigration laws passed by Congress to be enforced.
It is, ultimately, a reaction against the most liberal government this nation has seen since Lyndon Johnson. And the constant lectures that if only we would listen, if our minds were a little sharper, we would understand that all of these terrible policies emanating from Washington are actually good for us.
Nobody likes being treated like a child. Not Republicans. Not Independents. And not Democrats.
Thus, the Tea Party phenomenon.