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The Next Election: The Surprising Reality


The Tea Party doesn’t have a national headquarters or an official governing body. Nor is there a reliable count of its members, simply because there’s no formal way for adherents to sign up. At best, it’s a congeries of local groups, often six people gathered in a living room. Indiana has seventy-two affiliates, among them “Johnny Appleseeds” and “Hoosiers for Small Government.” Still, the Tea Party is organized enough to maintain a website selling Tea Party golf balls ($10.95), Tea Party cigars ($9.95), and children’s coloring books ($4.99). Visitors are invited to sign a petition demanding repeal of the Affordable Care Act. As of early July, 152,175 people had put down their names, a possible measure of the group’s core supporters.

The Tea Party gets attention because it expresses a mood, an attitude, an ideology that has sympathizers beyond its actual rolls. The House of Representatives has a Tea Party caucus with sixty members, according to the website of caucus chairman Michele Bachmann, although a number of other members vote with it. A New York Times/CBS poll, conducted about a year ago, found that 18 percent of those it sampled were willing to be listed as Tea Party “supporters.” Kate Zernike draws on this group in writing Boiling Mad. A further value of her book is that she took to the road, attending rallies and listening in the aforesaid living rooms.

What she saw and heard fills out Mark Lilla’s analysis in these pages last year.5 He characterized the Tea Party as a “libertarian eruption,” which has attracted “individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone,” particularly if they are freed of their tax burdens. Zernike notes that almost all are Republicans, intent on purifying their party. Significantly, they are not local elites. Fewer than half are college graduates and only a quarter earn over $100,000. Given their antipathy to public programs, it is revealing to learn that two out of three feel Social Security and Medicare are worth the cost, and just over half think their own tax bill is fair. On religious grounds, many oppose federal and state rules tolerating abortion or allowing homosexuals to marry. At the same time, by two to one, they want firearms banned in public places, even while favoring gun ownership.

At the Tea Party base Zernike found “a visceral belief that government had taken control of their lives.” Here I wanted to know more. In the course of a day, how and where do they feel the heavy hand of the state? I can understand why pig and poultry processors might cavil at inspections or oil companies prefer to write their own rules. But the Tea Party supporters in Boiling Mad seem more concerned with a personal individuality, with a sense that taxation and other government requirements have impinged on what they see as the distinctive core of their lives. The nearly half who feel the tax bill is unfair may well feel that they would have better lives if they could use that money for themselves, their families, or causes of their own choosing.


The Republican Party we know today had its origins in 1946, when it ended fourteen years of Democratic dominion, presenting itself as the voice of ordinary Americans. Its slogan for that year’s congressional races was “Had Enough?,” playing on resentment over rising prices and postwar shortages. Swept in were figures like Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy, who created the epithet “un-American,” an accusation almost impossible to refute. Since then, the party has exhibited a coarse strain, which its corporate wing tolerates as a price of prevailing. “Impeach Earl Warren!” came later, as did Willie Horton, followed by “class warfare,” “death panels,” and the “Swift Boat” attacks. Allen West, a much-showcased new GOP congressman from Florida, calls the President “a low-level socialist agitator.”

Few Democrats can bring themselves to reply in kind. Instead, they tend to respond in paragraphs, feeling most issues need extended analysis. (During a 2004 debate, John Kerry replied that a foreign policy issue was more “nuanced” than George Bush had made out.) If Democrats have a problem here, it’s what I might call a didactic disposition: wordy discourse not connected with clear plans for action. The exemplar of this tendency was Adlai Stevenson, followed by a sad succession of defeated candidates: George McGovern, Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, and John Kerry. Truth to tell, our current president sounds more like them than, say, Lyndon Johnson or Bill Clinton, both of whom won reelection. Nor is this a matter to be resolved by coaching or a new set of speechwriters. Nature and nurture have given Barack Obama a temperament that well suits many of his responsibilities, but the charisma so attractive during his election has failed along with his failure to stimulate the economy. How might he counter the new populism of the GOP?

Obama could do worse than revisit the “Had Enough?” slogan of 1946, which gave Republicans control of Congress, in circumstances that have some parallels with 2010. Harry Truman gave the GOP time to compile a record, and then set out for a full term of his own. In June 1948, he told a Bremerton, Washington, rally: “They are going…to tell you what a great Congress they have been. If you believe that, you are bigger suckers than I think you are.”6

A day or so earlier in Spokane, he labeled the 80th Congress the “worst since the first one met,” soon abridged to “The Worst Since the First.” “Lay It On, Harry!” became the audience response, revving up to “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!” Not only did he, against all forecasts, get his own term in November; he restored Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate. Obama seems hardly capable of expressing anger, but he’s shown he has a deft wit. A good question is whether he can use it as a rapier to deflate bogus Republican claims not only about Obamacare but about himself.


For practical purposes, national parties have ceased to exist. The conventions, once scenes of open debates and closed-door deals, no longer choose the candidates. Titular national committees are overshadowed by groups like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, which raise funds on their own and then parcel them out. At the federal level, the GOP currently has two centers of power, which basically agree on policies and principles. One is its five-member majority on the Supreme Court, whose leanings are now patently partisan. The other is the House of Representatives, where John Boehner sets the agenda and Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap for America’s Future” has become—at least for the next few months—the party’s de facto platform. Of course, the Republicans also have their eye on the Senate, where Democrats hold twenty-two of the thirty-three seats that fall open next year. But the big prize is obviously the presidency. And here the lack of a coherent national party takes a toll. Indeed, no discrete group will have a final say on who will be the nominee.

A free-for-all that literally anyone can enter is already underway. At this writing, I count nine candidates who have announced or aren’t objecting if their names are raised: Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Sarah Palin, Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum. Five have been governors and four have served in Congress. Six of them—Bachmann, Gingrich, Palin, Paul, Perry, and Santorum—stand unabashedly on the right, although Paul is a libertarian who would legalize recreational drugs and purchased sex. All have or have had followings within the party, whose core of committed voters is surprisingly small.

A good measure of the size of their following is who shows up for the caucuses and primaries. In 2008, amid much attention, the chief contenders were Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, John McCain, and Rudolph Giuliani. Yet the total turnout was only 22 million, about 17 percent of the November electorate. (The Democrats drew 38 million.) If the GOP regulars are in a Goldwater mood, Bachmann might top the poll and become their nominee. Still, there is no way she or any other of the five could attract enough votes to win the White House. There simply isn’t that large a constituency for their ideology.

Tim Pawlenty, a two-term governor of Minnesota, has conservative credentials, but wears them a little more lightly. His campaign biography, Courage to Stand, devotes much of its space to religion. He was raised a Catholic but now attends his wife’s Baptist church, and increasingly quotes the Bible (“You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes,” James, 4:14). His chief criticisms of Obama’s foreign record are his “appeasement of Iran’s ayatollahs” and “his betrayal of Poland and the Czech Republic on missile defense.” He says nothing I can find about China.

Only Romney and Huntsman look plausible. In earlier times, the party’s inner circle would have tapped one of them, and the convention would rally around him. But today nominations are given over to the party regulars who show up in all seasons. So it is left to them to vet or veto candidates on whatever grounds they choose. Romney and Huntsman are Mormons, which bothers some evangelicals. While serving as governor of Massachusetts, Romney set up a health plan much like Obama’s, which can’t sit well with the GOP’s pledge to repeal the national law, however much he now insists that each state should have its own plan. Huntsman chose to serve as Obama’s ambassador to China and speaks Mandarin, which will raise grassroots GOP suspicions. Recall how John Kerry had to hide his fluent French. Still, it’s possible that either one might end up prevailing in the primaries. Robert Dole and McCain did, despite their relative moderation at the time. But both then encountered a problem: a lot of the more conservative Republicans felt slighted by their candidacies and stayed at home.

For various reasons, some disquieting, Obama has become an easy target. Although it is never openly stated, there are Americans who don’t want to be governed by a black man. (Some of the same people find him too much a Harvard product.) Many of the twenty-nine states under Republican control are moving to disenfranchise lower-income voters by requiring state identification cards and curbing early voting. Some are following Wisconsin and Ohio in barring political activities by public service unions. For the House, members of the Republican majority in the states are redrawing districts in ways favorable to the party for the 2012 elections. (Texas did this prior to 2010, parlaying the GOP’s 59 percent of the votes into 72 percent of the state’s seats.)

Still, a basic point is that 2012 will have a different—and much more varied—electorate. If Barack Obama takes a leaf from Harry Truman, he will go on the offensive, making the Boehner-Ryan record the centerpiece of his campaign. Democrats shouldn’t be above implanting a few fears, especially about the consequences of the Republicans’ plan to shift Medicare to private insurers. Or they can point out that families earning between $75,000 and $100,000 (average income: $86,421) now end up paying 13.5 percent of their income to the IRS, while the wealthiest four hundred households (average income: $270,510,000) are averaging 18.1 percent.7 While Obama may not match his 2008 turnout, it shouldn’t be surprising if he does. Even desultory presidential years bring more voters to the polls. If the appeal is kept simple—“let him finish the job”—it’s far from certain that a majority will go for what the GOP is offering. Yet most forecasts are that unemployment will remain high in 2012. And the folklore is that incumbents rarely win if those rates don’t decline.

Republicans claim that “job creation” will result from just about everything they seek, whether drilling on public lands or letting banks regulate themselves or lowering corporate taxes. But past a point, such claims lose credibility. While Americans may not identify along class lines, they are not unaware of which interests gain when the GOP wins. And while 2010 saw a rout of House Democrats, an electoral fact is that two thirds of the GOP’s winners received less than 55 percent of the votes. Coattails being what they are, most of those gains could be reversed. The same effect could retain a Democratic Senate. Of the twenty-three seats up for renewal that are held by Democrats or independents, eighteen are in states that were carried by Obama.

The real test will be whether Obama can carry such states as Indiana, Virginia, and North Carolina. In the end, turning out voters in a presidential election rests far more on enthusiasm than money. If Obama can reinvigorate that energy in 2012, the GOP’s principal redoubt, whether in curtailing abortion, mandated medical care, or limits on corporate political spending, will be the Supreme Court.

—July 21, 2011


Corrections September 29, 2011

  1. 5

    The Tea Party Jacobins,” The New York Review, May 27, 2010. 

  2. 6

    Democrats: Varied Adventures in the West,” Time, June 21, 1948. 

  3. 7

    See Table 1.1, 2008, in “ SOI Tax Stats—Individual Income Tax Returns Publication 1304,” and Table 1 in “The 400 Individual Income Tax Returns Reporting the Highest Adjusted Gross Income, 1992–2008,” both at irs.gov/taxstats/index.html. 

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