This Politico article asks a question I’ve been asking friends recently: Where is the Tea Party? The article focuses on how the movement is “splintering” as its various leaders back various GOP presidential hopefuls:
The splintering is on display in New Hampshire, where several prominent tea party leaders made conflicting endorsements in recent weeks. Last week, Jane Aitken, co-founder of the New Hampshire Tea Party Coalition, endorsed Ron Paul…Failed congressional candidate Jennifer Horn, who runs the grass-roots group We The People, recently backed Romney…Former Bachmann backer Jerry DeLemus, who chairs the Granite State Patriots Liberty PAC, endorsed Santorum, and DeLemus’s predecessor as PAC chairman, Jack Kimball, had switched to Gingrich when his previous pick, Cain, dropped out.
Part of this phenomenon, as one of the local sources cited in the piece says, is due to the fact that the Tea Party as a movement is better-suited to congressional than presidential races. It’s highly decentralized, and so it’s leaders are speaking for various constituents without any real concern for coordinating with some over-arching body. It’s no surprise that Tea Party leaders gravitate toward different candidates for different reasons. The dispersion of the movement’s many parts is part of what’s keeping it from being a Movement (with a capital “M”) in the 2012 presidential race.
I think the relative absence of the Tea Party, though, is owing to two other more important reasons:
- The issues preoccupying the electorate have moved beyond the Tea Party’s original animus. In the darkness that was the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, the Tea Party arose to protest the Obama Democrats’ (and similarly-minded Republicans’) desire to ramp up spending and use the crisis as a way to extend the federal government’s reach into our lives. The mantra was simple: cut spending, and as a result, cut the reach of government. Now, though, after several years of living in a lousy economy, the electorate wants growth and jobs. The Tea Party has never organized itself around a growth agenda. It’s hard to know whether it’s more Tea Party-ish to support Romney’s plan, Huntsman’s plan, Cain’s erstwhile 9-9-9 plan, and so on. And so various Tea Party leaders go in different directions on the issue of growth, and the movement is diminished as a result.
- Thanks to Paul Ryan and the congressional Republicans, the issue of government spending – which gelled myriad activists into “the Tea Party” – has grown more complex, and the Tea Party has not adjusted. It was always easier to organize Tea Party events around the theme of spending cuts than entitlement reform. Like many of the freshmen Republicans they sent to Congress, Tea Party activists – like most ordinary Americans – didn’t fully appreciate just how limited Congress’s ability to cut spending is. With only about one-third of Washington’s budget available to discretionary cuts, we are left with entitlement reform – Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid – if we want to get the deficit under control and reduce spending. And entitlement reform means accepting changes such as raising retirement ages, means-testing benefits, and moving to “premium support” or “defined contributions” in Medicare. These reforms (1) are complex and less available to sound bites (“cut spending!”) and (2) affect many Tea Party activists who want Washington to cut spending but think twice about changing the Social Security they’ve come to expect as a given. When’s the last time anyone saw Tea Partiers pour onto the Mall in Washington to protest the status quo in Medicare?
Until the Tea Party as a movement can cope coherently with growth and entitlement reform, its effect going forward on policy and elections will be more limited than it should be. I hope for America that a few of its leaders figure this out and apply the same rigor that changed the nation in 2010 to what’s left of the 2012 race.