Having looked at the swelling of the Tea Party, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not a uniform movement. There are at least three different movements trying to give the impression of being one. The most influential of these movements is the one that fits most easily into the GOP. It is associated with Sarah Palin, Karl Rove, and other Republican regulars appearing on Fox. It emphasizes what Dick Morris describes as “economic issues exclusively,” and those issues can be summed up as Obamacare and some of the ill-considered bailouts passed by the Democratic Congress since 2008.
These protestors against the Democrats are by no means hardliners, and they already enjoy places of honor at the GOP table. These spokespersons for “smaller government” are not asking for much that the party can’t give them. Or else they are asking for what GOP leaders might claim they would give them if the media and Democratic politicians allowed them to do more. Such Republicans have made it a practice to scream loudly at the Dems. But they also tend to fall meekly into line once their party returns to power.
In 1994 after the great Republican congressional sweep, the late journalist Robert Novak urged the new House Speaker Newt Gingrich to abolish government-promoted quotas for minorities. Gingrich is reputed to have explained to Novak that there’s no reason to drive away blacks, women, and Hispanics by doing anything risky. In any case Republicans would vote Republican, no matter what. Gingrich was of course right.
What the Speaker might have also mentioned was that the 1992 Civil Rights Act, which re-institutionalized quotas after the Reagan administration had backed away from them, was mostly a Republican achievement. President G.H.W. Bush and Senate Minority leader Robert Dole had strongly backed the bill and induced Republicans in Congress to get behind it. Only heaven knows why a Republican Congress, once back in control, would have bothered to rescind it. Their voters were happy simply having their party win elections.
This group of Republican non-insurgents often shares the stage with another bunch of Tea Party activists. Although this second group may applaud the ungrammatical platitudes and gesticulating of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, it seems driven by something more than fear of Obamacare or anxiety about losing Medicare payments. This group senses that something was wrong with the government long before John McCain lost the presidential sweepstakes in 2008.
The quintessential representative of this position is the Tea Party senatorial candidate in Nevada Sharron Angle, who is battling Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Angle laments the growth of the federal bureaucracy in her lifetime (she’s now in her sixties) and calls for abolishing the Department of Education and privatizing at least part of Social Security. She also makes clear that she dislikes the “reforms” of FDR, but unlike Beck and other Republican noisemakers, Angle is specific about what she wants to see put on the road to extinction, starting with Social Security.
She quotes her grandfather, who thought that every program we receive from the federal or state government diminishes our freedom. Angle is not a Republican pretending to be something else, but an undisguised opponent of the New Deal, Great Society, and whatever other congressional programs came after. Her suggestion about dumping the Department of Education made Fox-news contributors treat her as a kook, until it became obvious that Angel might win. It was thereafter necessary to welcome her into the GOP club.
A third group of Tea Party enthusiasts are people like Carl Paladino, the GOP gubernatorial candidate in New York who is headed for a humiliating defeat at the hands of liberal Democrat Andrew Cuomo. Paladino has not handled himself with tact, but that is not the only reason he is going to lose in a very blue state. He has also angered the neoconservative journalistic establishment, and particularly the editors of the widely circulated New York Post, by openly expressing his distaste for the gay movement. The Post and its editors have bent backward to court gays for their Republican Party, one that is to be built on creating a “business-friendly” environment and on shaping a consensus for a vigorously interventionist foreign policy.
Paladino is revisiting social issues from the right in a way that has upset neoconservative journalists. And they have gone after him with a vengeance, digging up enough dirt about him to sink his career many times over. Paladino represents a strain in the Tea Party movement that Republican regulars as well as neoconservatives reject as “right-wing.” They are therefore working openly to promote the victory of his very left-of-center opponent in the New York gubernatorial race. Paladino’s opponents view different groups of Tea Party activists very differently. They realize not all of them are clubbable, and they are determined to destroy the ones who are not.