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Will the Tea Get Cold?

Charles Ommanney/Reportage by Getty Images
A Romney supporter outside the Romney for President headquarters in Greenville, South Carolina, January 21, 2012

The Republican presidential nomination contest, which has entered a lull before it presses toward a probable showdown in March and April, when thirty primaries and caucuses will be held, has found its script. It will be a struggle between the “establishment” candidate and one or another “insurgent.” What might seem confusing is how, and on whom, these labels have been affixed. According to the accepted calculus, the establishment candidate is Mitt Romney, although as many have pointed out, he is less a creature of Washington than any of his three remaining rivals.

Romney has held elective office only once, his single term as governor of Massachusetts (2003–2007), and spent most of his professional life, as he tirelessly reiterates, in the “private sector.” The vast fortune he accumulated, including the $45 million in earnings in 2010–2011 that he reported in late January,1 on tax returns he reluctantly disclosed under pressure from his chief rival, Newt Gingrich, came in the field of private equity, “a prime legacy of the Reagan years” that remain a golden age for conservatives, as a Wall Street Journal columnist pointed out,2 but has nonetheless kept him under continual, and surprising, populist attack from the right.

This emerged most forcefully in the South Carolina primary. Gingrich’s victory there catapulted him to his current position as a lead spoiler and self-appointed outsider. Yet he too seems miscast. Though he has insisted that his is “a campaign of people power versus money power,”3 he had reported income of $3.16 million in 2010,4 almost all of it earned via politically related business, the outgrowth of his twenty years in the House of Representatives, a period marked by controversy and during which he was punished for ethics violations. Since leaving the House, Gingrich has feasted at the K Street lobbying trough and perpetuated his long, cozy association with the government-supported mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Announcing a housing partnership in Atlanta in 1995, for example, he held up Fannie Mae as “an excellent example of a former government institution fulfilling its mandate while functioning in the market economy.”

Gingrich’s ties to Freddie Mac were even stronger. The corporation paid him $25,000 a month as a consultant shortly after he too joined the “private sector” in 1999. Today, of course, Gingrich has added his voice to the chorus calling for the dismantling of both companies.5 Meanwhile, as he continues to taunt Romney, who as governor introduced a forerunner of “Obamacare,” with the epithet “Massachusetts moderate,” in tones Republicans once reserved for denouncing “Radic libs” and “left liberals,” Gingrich has had to explain his own complicity in “big-government” schemes, including his support, as recently as 2009, for cap-and-trade legislation.

The other candidates’ résumés are equally smudged. Rick Santorum, a former Gingrich ally6 who has drawn support from evangelical “social conservatives” uncomfortable with Romney’s Mormonism—and recently has had considerable success in attracting that constituency—is also a Washington insider, indeed “the Senate’s point man on K Street,” deeply involved in plans for filling lobbying firms with Republicans. Following the election of George W. Bush, Santorum held weekly meetings with lobbyists, at which, Nicholas Confessore reported in 2003, they would “pass around a list of the jobs available and discuss whom to support. Santorum’s responsibility [was] to make sure each one [was] filled by a loyal Republican—a senator’s chief of staff, for instance, or a top White House aide, or another lobbyist whose reliability has been demonstrated.”7

This collusion led to the Medicare prescription drug bill of 2003, a $500 billion program that was the capstone of the Bush-era “big-government conservatism” that is so much in disfavor on the right today. At the same time Santorum, who rose to become the third-ranking Senate Republican, was an eager pursuer of “earmarks” totaling as much as $1 billion for his constituents in western Pennsylvania.8

Only the purist libertarian Ron Paul has charted a consistent course in his twelve terms in Congress, though his dogma of “liberty” is tinged with paranoia about conspiracy, including luridly anti-Semitic and racist commentary printed under his name in a newsletter9—later withdrawn, but not altogether surprising for one who in 2008 delivered the keynote address at the John Birch Society’s fiftieth anniversary gala, held in Appleton, Wisconsin, the hometown of Joseph McCarthy.

The notably weak field and the volatility of primary and caucus voters (Santorum won in Iowa, Romney in New Hampshire, Gingrich in South Carolina, Romney again in Florida and then in the Nevada caucus, Santorum again in Minnesota, Colorado, and Missouri) have dismayed GOP leaders and conservative commentators. Some now openly speculate whether the election will be lost, when a few months ago the large gains in the 2010 elections, followed by aggressive and repeatedly successful showdowns with President Obama, seemed to point toward triumph in 2012.

Some top Republicans (including Senator John McCain and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie) have been pleading with primary voters to fall in line behind Romney, seen as the only electable candidate, while journalists like William Kristol fancifully pine for a late-entering white knight—Christie, Jeb Bush, or Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels—who will charge in and unite the party’s hostile factions, gathering in himself its many diffuse energies and directing them against Obama.

What makes this spectacle all the more anomalous, and possibly self- destructive, is the assumption, shared if not acknowledged by one and all, that once the primaries end, the winner—or survivor—will need to pivot sharply to the center and make an appeal to the centrists and independents who, even in this ideologically supercharged climate, will decide the election. This is a familiar ritual, enacted by both major parties. And most voters, who begin to think seriously about their choices shortly before Election Day, pay little attention to intraparty squabbling. But this year’s competition has taken place on the public stage for many months already. There have already been more than twenty televised debates; some have attracted substantial audiences, much larger than in 2008.10

Those debates have been unrelievedly strident. Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Rick Perry have left the stage; but they imparted a Jacobin tone that has scarcely been muted. And there is no question that the GOP’s positions have shifted far to the right. The clearest evidence is the elevation of Paul—who would abolish the Federal Reserve and revive the gold standard—from fringe figure in 2008 to respected and feared presence in 2012, and with good reason: he finished first in the influential Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) straw poll in both 2010 and 2011; in the second he easily outdistanced Romney, Gingrich, and Santorum.

This, in turn, points to the larger problem for the GOP. Its leading figures, in office and in the media, continue to espouse an antigovernment ideology that in reality attracts very few voters, even on the right. More accurately, today’s self-identified conservatives embrace movement rhetoric but not movement ideology—at least not when it is cast as policy. In The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, Harvard scholars who have interviewed adherents of the new insurgency in different regions of the country, report that

fully 83% of South Dakota Tea Party supporters said they would prefer to “leave alone” or “increase” Social Security benefits, while 78% opposed cuts to Medicare prescription drug coverage, and 79% opposed cuts in Medicare payments to physicians and hospitals…. 56% of the Tea Party supporters surveyed did express support for “raising income taxes by 5% for everyone whose income is over a million dollars a year.”

These views, which are aligned with those of moderate Republicans and Democrats, corroborate the findings in a 2010 New York Times poll of Tea Partiers, which concluded: “Despite their push for smaller government, they think that Social Security and Medicare are worth the cost to taxpayers.”11 Such opinions reflect those of the broader public, and as much as two thirds of that public favors in principle much of Obama’s program, including his plan to increases taxes on the wealthy12—an idea derided on the right as “class warfare.” Meanwhile approval for the Tea Party–aligned House of Representatives has sunk to historic depths.13

Nonetheless, insurgent fevers run high, and Skocpol and Williamson estimate that “strong” Tea Party supporters “amount to about one-fifth of voting-age adults, or roughly 46 million Americans.” Many belong to the demographic group most likely to vote at election time, including in off-year congressional elections and in primaries when many others don’t bother. This is what happened in 2010. Only 40 percent of the eligible total voted, but those who did “were markedly older, whiter, and more comfortable economically than those who stayed home.”

Unsurprisingly, all four candidates are openly courting this faction—or factions. The term “Tea Party” is itself a misnomer. There is no single party. Instead there are many independent organizations, “about 1000 groups spread across all fifty states,” Skocpol and Williamson estimate. “Some local Tea Parties are very large, with online memberships of 1000 people or more. But most local Tea Parties have much smaller contact lists, and the typical local meeting has a few dozen people in attendance.” The authors put the national total of “very active grassroots participants” at 200,000—a tiny fraction of those said to be “strong” supporters and less than a third of a single average-sized congressional district.

It is, in other words, not a mass movement at all, and it appears to be losing steam. Even in congressional districts in which Tea Party–backed candidates won in 2010, enthusiasm has waned. A New York Times poll of voters in those districts found that “27 percent said they disagreed with the Tea Party and 20 percent said they agreed—a reversal from a year ago, when 27 percent agreed and 22 percent disagreed.”14 But the insurgent message still has an effect. Two thirds of Florida primary voters said they sympathized with the Tea Party. And Romney’s success with them—he ran slightly ahead of Gingrich—was perhaps the first indication that he is solidly entrenched as the front-runner. Certainly he has courted the GOP base. Writing in The Washington Post after the Florida results came in, Skocpol pointed out that Romney has waged a campaign as “the stealth Tea Party candidate” and has “repeatedly pledged fealty to key tea party priorities: cracking down on illegal immigration, repealing ‘Obamacare.’”15

Some liken this year’s election to a prior insurgency—Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964. At the time his program was described by the journalist Karl Meyer as representing “a mood, not an ideology.”16 But Goldwater’s intellectual champions, who included William F. Buckley Jr., James Burnham, and Milton Friedman, made concrete policy proposals (e.g., the introduction of a “negative income tax”). The 2012 campaign has been remarkably innocent of such thinking, apart from sweeping promises to roll back “Obamacare,” empower “free enterprise,” and slash taxes (while being careful to spare the costly “insurance” programs, Social Security and Medicare, that in fact place the greatest strain on the federal budget).

  1. 1

    Michael D. Shear, Jeff Zeleny, and Jim Rutenberg, “Romney Tax Returns Show 2-Year Income of $45 Million,” The New York Times, January 24, 2012. 

  2. 2

    Bret Stephens, “The GOP Deserves to Lose,” The Wall Street Journal, January 24, 2012. 

  3. 3

    Peter Hamby, “Gingrich Sharpens Attacks Against Romney’s Wealth,” CNN Politics, February 3, 2012. 

  4. 4

    Nicholas Confessore, “Returns Suggest Gingrich Pays Higher Rate in Taxes,” The New York Times, January 19, 2012. 

  5. 5

    Eric Lichtblau, “Gingrich’s Deep Ties to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac,” The New York Times, February 3, 2012. 

  6. 6

    Shira Toeplitz, “Santorum and Gingrich Share Complicated Past,” Roll Call, January 26, 2012. 

  7. 7

    “Welcome to the Machine,” Washington Monthly, July–August 2003. 

  8. 8

    See Katrina Trinko, “Santorum and Earmarks,” National Review Online, January 6, 2012. 

  9. 9

    James Kirchick, “Angry White Man: The Bigoted Past of Ron Paul,” The New Republic, January 8, 2008. 

  10. 10

    Brian Stelter, “Republican Debates Are a Hot Ticket on TV,” The New York Times, October 16, 2011. 

  11. 11

    Kate Zernike and Megan Thee-Brenan, “Poll Finds Tea Party Backers Wealthier and More Educated,” The New York Times, April 14, 2010. 

  12. 12

    See, for example, Robert Schlesinger, “Poll: Most Americans Support Obama Deficit Plan to Tax Rich,” U.S. News & World Report, September 20, 2011. 

  13. 13

    “Congressional Performance: 5% Say Congress Doing Good or Excellent Job,” Rasmussen Reports, January 31, 2012. 

  14. 14

    Kate Zernike, “Support for Tea Party Falls in Strongholds, Polls Show,” The New York Times, November 29, 2011. 

  15. 15

    Theda Skocpol, “Mitt Romney, the Stealth Tea Party Candidate,” The Washington Post, February 3, 2012. 

  16. 16

    Quoted in Richard H. Rovere, The Goldwater Caper (Harcourt, Brace, 1965), p. 118. 

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