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Whose Tea Party Is It?

Newt Gingrich’s brief turn as presidential front-runner was only the latest paroxysm of a tumultuous Republican primary season. What’s going on? Tensions within the Tea Party help explain the volatility of the Republican primary campaign, as candidates seek to appeal to competing elements of the Tea Party with varying success.

For our new book, “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” we interviewed Tea Party activists across the country over a sixteen-month period and found that the movement is not the monolith it is sometimes portrayed as. The conservative political upsurge has grassroots and elite components with divergent interests and goals. Mitt Romney, no favorite of the Tea Party grassroots, is currently pitching his candidacy to Tea Party elites, while Newt Gingrich and other contenders are vying for the rank-and-file Tea Party supporters.

We learned about grassroots Tea Party groups by attending their meetings, interviewing active members and reading hundreds of their websites and message boards. In early 2011, these Tea Partiers had no consistent favorite for the Republican nominee, supporting everyone from Ron Paul to Mike Huckabee to Donald Trump, but they did have one goal in mind for 2012: beating Barack Obama. As one Tea Party member we met in Virginia put it, “we have to get Obama out. Obama and the Communists he’s surrounded himself with.”

In recent weeks, Gingrich has reached out to these grassroots Tea Party voters, older white middle-class conservatives who remember him from his glory days as an insurgent Democrat slayer. Gingrich’s aggressive style and blistering critiques of the Democrats resonate with Tea Party voters. Gingrich has accused Democrats of socialist tendencies for decades; as early as 1984, he claimed that a Democratic member of the House of Representatives was distributing “communist propaganda.”

But Gingrich has also tapped into what we identified as Tea Partiers’ most fundamental concern: their belief that hardworking American taxpayers are being forced to foot the bill for undeserving freeloaders, particularly immigrants, the poor and the young. Young people “just feel like they are entitled,” one member of the Massachusetts Tea Party told us. A Virginia interviewee said that today’s youth “have lost the value of work.”

These views were occasionally tinged with ethnic stereotypes about immigrants “stealing” from tax-funded programs, or minorities with a “plantation mentality.” When Gingrich talks about “inner-city” children having “no habits of working,” he is appealing to a widely held sentiment among the Tea Party faithful.

What’s more, Gingrich’s comparatively humane stance on immigration reform — offering immigrants a path to legal status with the approval of local community members — is more palatable to Tea Party members than one might expect. First, it reduces federal authority over a key Tea Party issue, a policy that appeals to the “states’ rights” conservatives who fill the seats at Tea Party meetings. Crucially, Gingrich is not offering, as Rick Perry did, taxpayer-funded benefits to unauthorized immigrants, a policy described by one Tea Party activist we spoke to as money wasted on “moochers.”

Immigration was always a central, and sometimes the central, concern expressed by Tea Party activists, usually as a symbol of a broader national decline. Asked why she was a member of the movement, a woman from Virginia asked rhetorically, “what is going on in this country? What is going on with immigration?” A Tea Party leader in Massachusetts expressed her desire to stand on the border “with a gun” while an activist in Arizona jokingly referred to an immigration plan in the form of a “12 million passenger bus” to send unauthorized immigrants out of the United States.

In a survey of Tea Party members in Massachusetts we conducted, immigration was second only to deficits on the list of issues the party should address. Another man, after we interviewed him in the afternoon, took us aside at a meeting that evening to say specifically that he wished he had said more about immigration because that was really his top issue.

Tea Party activists are not uniformly opposed to government social programs, however. Our interviewees were very anxious that Social Security and Medicare be maintained. “I’ve been working since I was 16 years old, and I do feel like I should someday reap the benefit. I’m not looking for a handout. I’m looking for a pay out of what I paid into,” one Tea Party member explained. Their support for these programs was not just self-interested; several Tea Partiers said they would take a benefit cut if the savings stayed in the Social Security fund. One woman, a regular attendee of her local Tea Party, offered solutions that seemed totally out of keeping with the stereotypes of Tea Party members as knee-jerk tax cutters. After suggesting that any benefit cuts be aimed at those in the “upper income brackets,” she went so far as to say that she “would not mind a tax increase to try to get the country right again.”

Given the Tea Partiers’ abiding support for two key pillars of the American social safety net, it is no surprise that Gingrich’s plan for a Social Security overhaul is aimed only at young workers, not the retirees filling the rows at Tea Party meetings. But Mitt Romney has taken a different path, expressing his support for the Ryan budget plan that features huge tax cuts for the very wealthy paid for with relatively near-term Medicare cuts.

Many observers have suggested that Romney’s support for the unpopular Ryan budget was a misstep. But considered from another perspective, Romney is making a strategic move to aim for a different part of the Tea Party, the free-market elites and funders.

Long-standing elite advocacy organizations that rallied around the Tea Party label in 2009 and 2010, like FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, were crucial to the Tea Party phenomenon, providing funding for national rallies and conservative candidates, and focusing attention on well-practiced spokespeople to represent the Tea Party in the media and in Washington. But the national advocates have only tenuous ties to the grassroots Tea Party groups and are in no way accountable to the Tea Party at the local level. Their policy agenda is different as well. FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity have sought major reforms of Social Security and Medicare for years — long before the Tea-Party label gained currency.

Cutting these programs is unlikely to appeal to the grassroots Tea Party, but local Tea Party members are only marginally aware of the national advocacy occurring in their name. Asked about national groups, local activists tended to shake their heads in confusion. In a typical complaint, one leader of a local Arizona Tea Party group told us, “sometimes when you sign up for a site, it puts out tentacles,” sharing information so that visitors receive a bewildering array of emails from other groups.

Tea Partiers also receive their information primarily, or in some cases exclusively, from Fox News and talk radio, outlets that are unlikely to turn a critical eye on conservative advocacy organizations. This lack of connection between grassroots and elite Tea Party-ism may allow Romney to placate the wealthy opponents of Social Security and Medicare without irking the Tea Party base.

For both Romney and Gingrich, appealing to the Tea Party is a bit of a stretch. Both men have been around too long not to have taken positions too moderate for the new, extreme-right, tea-infused Republican Party. In particular, there is little Romney can do to make Tea Party activists enthusiastic about him during the primary season. Though his claims to a businessman’s expertise should appeal to the many small business owners in the Tea Party, no one we interviewed had good things to say about anything but his potential electability.

But Republican primary voters, including those in the Tea Party, want to win the 2012 general election. As one Tea Partier told us, Romney is “not quite conservative enough – but we have to get Obama out.” They will overlook past heresies, even “RomneyCare,” in a candidate they believe can win the general election.

As long as the big Tea Party funders back Romney’s candidacy or stay on the sidelines, Romney has a good chance of riding out other candidates’ surges in popularity and using his vast organizational and financial advantages to beat out his opponents for the Republican nomination. At that point, the grassroots Tea Party members will have little influence; instead, momentum will shift even further towards the elite policy advocates. And these well-funded groups, which benefited from the Tea Party’s momentum in the first years of the Obama administration, will continue to seek their own policy goals, including those at odds with the positions of local Tea Partiers.


By: Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, The New York Times, December 26, 2011

December 28, 2011 - Posted by | Election 2012, Immigration, Teaparty | , , , , ,

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