Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Drinking the Kool-Aid Tea

In what may be the most egregious kowtow of a major political party to a political nonentity in at least recent American history, Michael Steele, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, met on Tuesday with members of Tea Party WDC, maybe the most formally established manifestation of the series of ad hoc conservative protesters and extremist malcontents that have rallied under the Tea Party banner for nearly a year.

Steele reportedly huddled with about 50 Tea Party leaders for more than four hours, discussing their angles of attack on the Obama White House, what Republicans and Tea Partiers have in common, and what they don’t have in common, in the runup to the 2010 midterms.

“The chairman believes it is extremely important to listen to this significant grassroots movement and work to find common ground in order to elect officials that will protect these principles,” RNC spokesperson Katie Wright said Tuesday to The Washington Post, offering an olive branch the size of a tree to the cohort of American conservatives that could, maybe, be a force in November.

We may be months away from a political scenario once thought improbable but more and more likely all the time, a variation on the storyline of “King of Hearts,” the 1966 Philipe de Broca film that posits what happens when the inmates run the asylum, and the town it’s located in.

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The devil and the details are inseparable. Even as the Tea Party makes its mainstream move (a unifying flag-bedecked logo, spokesmen with titles), it’s forced to come to grips with issues that have complicated its existence from the jump.

Credibility has been a problem for the Tea Party set. To this point, the TP’s followers have been characterized by a noisy intolerance that traffics in the symbols of don’t-tread-on-me populism married to silly exercises of self-identification (Tea Party members walked around last April wearing tea bags) and virulent intolerance (others carried signs that equated President Obama with Hitler).

To now, it’s been an orange-pekoe protest whose buffoonery contained just enough extremist rhetoric to make it something to take at least semi-seriously. But it’s hardly enough to suggest it could be a political game-changer for the broad cross-section of Americans who vote.

Another problem for the Tea Party (really, stemming from the first one) has to do with the fraud of its genesis. When the first large-scale Tea Party protests began last April 15, in demonstrations from Oak Harbor, Wash., to Sag Harbor, N.Y., they were heralded as the bellwether of a new grassroots, bottom-up movement in America.

The facts were something else again: A parade of K Street lobbyists and government insiders like former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich were instrumental in sparking and bankrolling the protests; and Fox News, the conservatives’ media arm, broadcast the Tea Bag Day rallies from various places around the country.

It’s impossible to believe that the fingerprints of such conservative powers could have disappeared from the movement in less than a year. The populist thrust of this movement was blunted from the start, and still is, by the involvement of the same government and corporate insiders the movement was meant to protest against in the first place.

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What’s the Tea Party’s reason for being? From the start, most people couldn’t see much difference between the bullet-point credo of the Tea Partiers and that of the Republicans. Even today, Americans still can’t find daylight between their mutual positions. The GOP and the Tea Partiers are in lock step on major issues like tax cuts, smaller government and the disturbingly imprecise notion of “returning to American values."

With no substantive differences in their basic philosophy, then, the TP movement is faced with a question: What can it hope to do in Washington that the GOP can’t do with more resources, more lobbyists, more like-minded partisans already on Capitol Hill? Carving out a distinction when there’s not much distinction is a huge challenge if you define yourself as an independent grassroots political insurgency — like the Tea Partiers do.

That’s what the Tea Partiers have tried to do: articulate distinctions between themselves and the Republicans; they’re doing what they can to make their claim of independence stick. “We're not a function of the Republican party,” one D.C. Tea Party member said last April, and said for a damn good reason. Implicit in that statement is an inescapable fact: If the Tea Party finds common cause with the Republicans, the Tea Party has absolutely no reason to exist.

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An equally foundational problem for the TP movement has been and is its willingness to accept, or certainly tolerate, the very people that most Americans don’t identify with. For almost a year now, the Tea Party has aligned itself with birthers, death-panel believers, ardent nativists and Palinistas that have swelled the TP ranks, and whose approach to politics hasn’t been much more than ad hominem attacks and character assassination.

Now, in a new bid for legitimacy, the Tea Party movement has to figure out what to do with the yahoos that formed its early base, even as it tries to tack toward wider mainstream acceptance — the only thing that could possibly make them a potent political force.

The GOP’s in much the same box. Having tried to leverage the anger of the TP movement to its own advantage, Republicans now face a group whose bid for political independence means throwing the Republicans under the same bus as the Democrats, as a matter of principle. The fact that many in the Tea Party’s ranks are really disaffected Republicans or right-leaning independent voters is hugely problematic for the GOP; they don’t cut into the Democrats’ voting bloc nearly as much as they do the Republicans’.

In positioning itself as a band apart, a bloc of conservative voters the GOP can’t take for granted, the Tea Party movement highlights just how potentially dangerous it is — to the GOP.

Which brings us to the four-hour courtship that took place on Tuesday.

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Presumably what makes the Tea Party distinctive is its mission statement, a snapshot of which is on their Web site: the party announces that it’s “for and by Americans that want to preserve, protect and promote freedom.”

But since that’s certainly the boilerplate objective of Democrats, Republicans and any political party, you wonder how much traction the Tea Party Nation can generate by November with a glittering centerpiece of a generality like that.

That generality hurts the Tea Party movement. For many Americans, its lack of policy specifics — symbolized by TP darling Sarah Palin, who addressed the first Tea Party convention last week with her political credo scribbled on her left hand, like a grocery list — suggests there’s not much there there, that the TP movement’s sole reason for being is protest for its own sake.

Leave it to the Republicans to ride to the rescue. The GOP, still emerging from the long time in the wilderness that began with Barack Obama’s inauguration, offered specifics with symbolism on Wednesday when about 80 conservative leaders convened on the former estate of George Washington in Mount Vernon, Va., to announce a manifesto restating principles rooted in “constitutional conservatism.”

The so-called Mount Vernon Statement, coming on the eve of the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference, will have company. An early version of the Tea Party Patriots’ Contract From America, a prepositional tweak on Gingrich’s 1994 Contract With America, will be released when the three-day CPAC convention starts, Thursday at D.C.’s Washington Marriott Wardsman Park Hotel.

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There are already plans for the second Tea Party convention, now set for Las Vegas in mid July. We can guess that’s when the TP movement will start to concretize its beliefs with real policy proposals, not just boilerplate bromides.

Back in 2004, in the runup to that year’s presidential election, the GOP frantically marketed itself as a “big tent” organization, one that would accommodate Americans across the political spectrum. That thinking’s been echoed since by Steele and others in the Republican leadership — even as other Republicans have embraced the idea of thinning the herd, separating the true believers from the fifth columnists (otherwise known as “moderates” and "RINOs").

We’ll watch closely as conservatives grapple with their latest existential dilemma: Do the Republicans grant the Tea Party movement admission to their big tent, or do they sit by and watch as the TP crowd puts up a tent of their own?

And if the Tea Party decides to build that tent, will anyone show up to see what’s inside?

Image credits: Tax Day 2009 protester: Via MSNBC. Gingrich: KyleCassidy, republished under GNU Free Documentation License. Obama protest sign: Unknown. Palin: Via C-SPAN.

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