Is the Tea Party movement, which may swing the midterm elections this November, a powerful force that will win, or is it a paranoid fringe, driven by Obama hate? Will Bunch, author of The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters, and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama, and Douglas E. Schoen, co-author with Scott Rasmussen of Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement Is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System, conclude their debate on the movement’s influence this week for The Daily Beast.
I never took a poll of Tea Partiers across America, but I did venture into its darkest heart in October 2009—the weekend I spent at the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot in West Point, Kentucky. The aroma of gunpowder lingers in the once-crisp autumn air, but the smell of politics is wafting close behind, and these days that politics is the backlash against President Barack Obama. It is a place where militias have recruited scores of members since the 1990s, where leading "birthers" challenging Obama's citizenship showed up (the previous April) to circulate petitions calling for the president's indictment, and where Senate hopeful Rand Paul rallied pro-gun zealots in the early days of his campaign.
I saw fear and loathing of Obama play out in a couple of ways. One was the widely shared belief that the government was preparing to confiscate the guns or ammunition of law-abiding citizens—an absurd notion considering that the president has actually received failing grades from gun-control groups for his lack of effort in this area. But the main driver was cultural distrust of Obama—who he was and how he got to the Oval Office. Obama-bashing had all but become a friendly way of saying "hello." When I walked in on a soggy Friday morning, a vendor selling The Shotgun News greeted a steam of newcomers shouting, "Win the Nobel Peace Prize in two easy steps!"—guffawing at the award announced that very morning. That was pretty benign—fans of the heavy artillery hoedown milled around wearing T-shirts reading, "Hitler gave great speeches, too." Indeed, one popular item for sale in the giant pole tent of gun sellers was a black-and-white Photoshop of Hitler caressing the shoulders of a young Obama.
And so Knob Creek was on my mind this weekend as I read the post from pollster Douglas Schoen—his second installment in our week-long debate on the nature and the potential influence of the Tea Party Movement. Schoen believes that the role of this much-ballyhooed phenomenon will be so powerful at the polls in November that the Obama administration will be forced to sit down and essentially negotiate with his right-wing adversaries. Writes Schoen: "The mistake the left makes more generally is trying to discredit movements like the Tea Party rather than trying to work with them."
Well, candidate Obama did promise that he would speak to his enemies—but I think he meant Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—not the Ohio Valley Militia.
Obviously, the folks at a place like Knob Creek include some extreme elements of the various groups that I write about in my new book, The Backlash, but the raw sentiments were the same I heard from both leaders and the rank-and-file of more respectable Tea Party-style groups like the Delaware 9-12 Patriots, the first group that the state's Cinderella-of-the-right Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell thanked after her stunning upset of GOP stalwart Rep. Mike Castle. That group's leader, a 65-year-old Vietnam vet named Russ Murphy, turned on Obama not because of his policies as much as his alleged tie to '60s radical William Ayers, and he formed his Patriot group after a call to arms from entertainer Glenn Beck of the Fox News Channel.
But the leaders of the Tea Party and those who champion its influence—people like Schoen and his Mad As Hell co-author and fellow pollster Scott Rasmussen—tell us that the movement is all about reducing the size of government, and curbing the federal debt. Schoen insists that Democrats need to recognize the mistakes that "leaders such as President Obama and Nancy Pelosi have made—"not recognizing the authentic nature of the genuine, spontaneous grassroots phenomenon representing an outpouring of anger calling for smaller government, less spending, and a return to our core principles." Yet the very first Tea Party protests came in the spring of 2009—long after the launching of two costly and ill-conceived wars, hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts for the wealthy, and other George W. Bush big-ticket spending programs, but more importantly right after Obama's inauguration. Some 18 months later, there is nary a negative peep from the Tea Party leaders about the GOP plan to borrow another $700 billion to extend those tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires.
Will this movement really distract America from the silent majority's millions of November 2008, to do the right thing for America?
This reminds me of the well-known quote from H.L. Mencken, but in reverse: When the Tea Party says it's about the money, it's not about the money.
The motivating factors of the Tea Party Movement have remained the same since Day One: Fear and anxiety, whipped up by high-def hucksters on cable TV and in the corridors of Congress. Some of these worries are the tribal ones about a multicultural America that flourish amid the firepower of a Knob Creek, but a lot of it now is genuine economic worry, caused by the long-term destruction of the American middle class that accelerated with the 2008 financial crisis. The question for Obama and the Democratic leaders of Congress is this: Given the hype over the rise of the Tea Party Movement, do they now pander to its ideas, no matter how irrational, many hatched in the incubator of accountability-free talk radio? Do they allow America's infrastructure to continue to crumble, and other nations of the world take the lead in developing alternative energy? Or do they stick to their guns—no pun intended—and pursue programs that will help dig the U.S. economy out of a long-term ditch, even programs with a role for the government?
In March, Obama said his main motivation for pushing for health-care reform for Americans is because "it's the right thing to do." Over time, this program should benefit perhaps millions of middle-class Americans who now oppose "Obamacare." This is the fundamental question raised by the rise of the Tea Party, a right-leaning, socially conservative uprising of 25 percent in some surveys, even less in others. Will this movement really distract America from the silent majority's millions of November 2008, to do the right thing for America?
Pundits, political experts, and commentators have said that the Tea Parties are a liability for the GOP.
Charles Krauthammer wrote on Friday that the Tea Party candidacy of Christine O’Donnell is going to cost the Republicans Delaware in the election for U.S. Senate.
And this may be true. Indeed, Chris Coons currently holds an 11-point lead over O’Donnell. But that is not to say that it would be impossible for O’Donnell to pull a big upset this November.
Indeed, we really need to look at Christine O’Donnell’s candidacy in the proper context of the Tea Party movement and its legitimate and enduring power to influence elections. Today, both the Democratic and Republican leadership are largely discredited. And voters are extremely receptive to the anti-systemic, anti-establishment, independent Tea Party movement. Polling by my colleague Scott Rasmussen shows that 75 percent of Republicans say that attacks from the GOP establishment on Tea Party candidates make them more likely to vote for the Tea Party candidates.
Put simply, given the general climate of dissatisfaction and mistrust with both parties, the Tea Party movement has tapped into a well of anger, frustration, and anti-incumbent sentiment in the electorate to emerge as an unprecedented, powerful, and vastly underrated electoral force.
Let’s provide some context.
The Tea Party movement did not exist two years ago. Yet the Tea Party movement has generated enthusiasm in the electorate that has heretofore not been evident.
Our own research shows that Tea Party support transcends traditional demographic, ideological, and partisan divisions. And an AP poll that was released this past week shows that 28 percent of Americans call themselves supporters of the Tea Party movement.
To be sure, the Tea Party movement has emerged as a positive counterforce on the right that has helped generate enthusiasm and support for the Republican Party. Prior to the emergence of the Tea Party, the GOP was completely discredited, had no support, and was behind in the polls.
But as the Tea Party has ascended, so has the Republican Party. Indeed, the GOP now holds a six-point lead in the Real Clear Politics Generic Congressional ballot test. Clearly, this has emboldened the base.
Indeed, if you look at elections that have already taken place in state after state—Scott Brown in Massachusetts, Rand Paul in Kentucky, Joe Miller in Alaska, Sharron Angle in Nevada, and Marco Rubio in Florida—the Tea Party endorsement has propelled each of these candidates to unlikely victory.
Tea Party candidates who are ethically challenged—such as Christine O’Donnell—are not going to be the strongest possible candidates in the general election.
But the larger point remains that the Tea Party movement has become the strongest and most potent force in American politics whose scope and breadth and depth of support have been unappreciated and fundamentally not understood.
Douglas Schoen is a political strategist and author of Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins on September 14. Schoen has worked on numerous campaigns, including those of Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Michael Bloomberg, Evan Bayh, Tony Blair, and Ed Koch.
Will Bunch, author of The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters, and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama , is a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News and a senior fellow at Media Matters for America. He is also the author of the recent Tear Down This Myth: The Right-Wing Distortion of the Reagan Legacy . His Daily News blog, Attytood, is one of the most successful political sites on the Web. A career journalist, Bunch shared a 1992 Pulitzer Prize for spot news reporting when he worked at New York Newsday. He lives in the Philadelphia suburbs.