Why the Tea Party Movement Isn’t Going Away Anytime Soon
Nearly every American with a political memory recalls that Texas billionaire Ross Perot captured 19 percent of the vote when he ran for president as an independent candidate in 1992. Less well known is what happened to that vote afterward. Therein lies an intriguing political lesson that bears on today’s Tea Party movement, which emerged on the political scene nearly 17 months ago and has maintained a sustained assault on the Republican establishment ever since.
Just this week, the Tea Party scored another upset triumph, this time in Delaware, where protest candidate Christine O’Donnell outpolled establishment scion Michael N. Castle in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate. It was merely the latest in a string of political rebellions that have shaped this campaign year much as the Perot phenomenon influenced American politics in the 1990s.
Two years after the Texan’s remarkable 19 percent showing, the Perot vote – a protest movement spawned primarily by political anxiety over what was considered fiscal recklessness at the federal level (sound familiar?) – washed away the Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. In a stern rebuke to President Bill Clinton, the Perot constituency gave full congressional control to the Republican Party for the first time in four decades. And then, just two years later, it turned around and helped elect Clinton to a second term.
The political lesson, worth pondering in these times of Tea Party rumbling, is that serious protest movements such as the Perot phenomenon or today’s Tea Party revolt never just fade away. They linger in American politics, sometimes largely unseen but sometimes quite overt, and exert a continuing tug on the course of electoral decision-making. Eventually they get absorbed into one major party or the other. In the process, they often tilt the balance of political power in the country, occasionally for substantial periods of time.
Back in the 1990s, the Perot constituency declared in word and vote that the country was on the wrong track, that the federal government was dysfunctional, that bold reform initiatives were needed to restore American democracy. These voters’ numbers and intensity of feeling rendered them a potent political force. Yet Clinton never clearly addressed their concerns during his first two years in office. He sought to govern as a vigorous leader with a huge electoral mandate when, in fact, he was elected with a mere 43 percent plurality. He announced boldly that his aim was to “repeal Reaganism” – in other words, to throw his 43 percent mandate against the policies of the most popular president in a generation.
Further, he sought to govern from the left at a time when many Americans wanted the Democrats to reshape themselves into a more centrist institution. On issue after issue – gays in the military, his big (for the time) stimulus package, his huge and complex health care initiative – Clinton positioned himself initially on the left, then sought to gain votes by inching his way toward the center. Only on the North American Free Trade Agreement, his most notable accomplishment during those two years (and also an initiative that Perot vehemently opposed), did he begin the process by going for a bipartisan coalition.
Perot’s constituency, which held the political balance of power in the 1994 campaign year, reacted by turning against the president. Election Day exit polls told the story. In Tennessee, the Perot vote broke for the two Republican Senate candidates by a margin of about 75 percent to 20 percent. In Pennsylvania’s Senate race, it was 59 percent to 33 percent. In California’s Senate contest, it was 60 percent to 27 percent. In New York’s gubernatorial race, it was 70 percent to 16 percent. It appeared that the Republicans would be invited to ride the Perot constituency right into the White House two years hence. But then, reacting to major missteps by the new Republican House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, and to Clinton’s forceful change of direction (encapsulated in his declaration that the “era of big government is over”), the Perot constituency rewarded a chastened president with another term in office.
Again, exit polls told the story in comparative numbers between the 1992 election and the 1996 election, when Perot’s share of the vote declined to 8 percent. Among independent voters, Perot’s vote share declined from 30 percent in 1992 to 17 percent in 1996; among Democrats, from 13 percent to 5 percent; among self-identified liberals, from 18 percent to 7 percent; and among moderates, from 21 percent to 9 percent. Meanwhile, Clinton’s share of the presidential tally among independents rose from 38 percent in 1992 to 43 percent in 1996; among Democrats, from 77 percent to 84 percent; among liberals, from 68 percent to 78 percent; among moderates, from 47 percent to 57 percent. It’s clear that Perot’s 1992 voters gave Clinton his margin of victory in 1996.
Clinton’s center-left governance and deft political “triangulation” – seeking to find just the right coalition for success on any issue – had proved highly effective not only politically but in terms of governmental success. Thus did Clinton soothe the electorate and help blunt the anti-government populism that had been percolating in American politics for a number of years, fueled by such things as an attempt by members of Congress to give themselves a pay raise through a back-door maneuver that precluded any need for a public vote and revelations of House members routinely kiting checks at the so-called House Bank. Clinton restored a sense that the government was working again, and given the agitations of the electorate when he took office that represented a significant achievement.
One must always be careful with historical analogies, and the Tea Party movement differs from the Perot phenomenon in many important respects. The Tea Party activists are more conservative, more ideologically energized, probably more intense in their anger, and much more inclined to conduct their insurgency within one party (the GOP). If, as expected, these agitated voters contribute to a big Republican victory in this year’s congressional elections, it is almost inconceivable that they will turn around two years from now and foster a Barack Obama re-election triumph.
And yet, the lessons of protest politics apply equally in both instances. The Tea Party movement will not fade away with this year’s election returns. It will disrupt the routine business of American politics for some time to come. Eventually, it will be absorbed into the two-party system and cease to be an independent force – but only after its angers have been assuaged, one way or another, by a change in governmental direction.
The Perot phenomenon is not the only historical antecedent to consider in trying to understand the Tea Party movement. Another is the 1968 independent candidacy of Alabama’s George Wallace, who captured nearly 14 percent of the national vote and landed electoral-vote pluralities in five Southern states. Richard Nixon won that year, but the Wallace candidacy rendered him a minority president, with just 43 percent of the vote (the same percentage Clinton received during the first Perot year). But Nixon wooed the angry Wallace constituency throughout his first term, and by 1972 he had incorporated it into his coalition. He captured those five Southern states and also siphoned off a large proportion of the angry white ethnic voters in America’s big cities of the Northeast and Midwest. Reagan built on that strategy in fashioning his more powerful coalition and transforming the political balance of power in America in the 1980s.
Inevitably, both Nixon and Reagan were attacked from the left for employing this “Southern strategy” and thus – according to the critics – encouraging racist and venomous sentiments in the body politic. It was no doubt true that part of the Wallace following stemmed from the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. But it was much more than that, as any survey of that era of political instability would attest. The critics seemed to be saying that if the political system would just ignore Wallace and his constituency, they would merely fade away. But of course they wouldn’t fade away; more likely they would become angrier and probably more widespread. In the end, the South became a more mainstream region than it had been in 1968, and American politics moved onward, as always.
All of this brings us back to the Tea Party movement. What it represents and portends can best be scrutinized by trying to answer three fundamental questions: First, is this movement for real and is it enduring? The answer is yes. It represents a political wave akin to the Perot or Wallace constituencies. Polls indicate some 18 percent of Americans identify themselves as Tea Party supporters – nearly equaling the vote percentage of Perot in 1992 and greater than the Wallace constituency in 1968. The largest Tea Party group, Tea Party Patriots, says it has a thousand local organizations with 15 million “associates.” Overall, the movement has the political whip hand in this campaign year, which is why it has been able to wreak so much havoc on the mainstream political system throughout this year’s primaries. The Tea Party has banished establishment GOP candidates and pulled forward previously obscure true believers such as Rand Paul in Kentucky, Sharron Angle in Nevada, Mike Lee in Utah, Ken Buck in Colorado, Joe Miller in Alaska, Marco Rubio in Florida and, of course, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware.
Some of these candidates, most notably Angle and O’Donnell, carry sufficiently heavy political baggage that Democrats have concluded their chances are enhanced with those GOP nominations. O’Donnell is given almost no chance of wresting the Delaware seat from the Democrats. But all of them are insurgency politicians whose rhetoric is tailor-made for an anti-establishment, anti-incumbent year. And every indication suggests that this is such a year. Even Nevada’s Sharron Angle, running against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, is maintaining poll numbers that suggest she actually could win. Two recent Nevada polls aggregated by the nonpartisan Clarus Research Group had Reid ahead by only two percentage points.
The second question is, where did this movement come from? What precisely were the impulses, angers and fears that spawned this seemingly spontaneous wave of civic energy? Of course, like all civic movements, the Tea Party represents a pastiche of various political sentiments and outlooks. Many of them smack of the standard right-wing fare that has been driving many elements of the Republican Party for years – anger over social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, an aversion to the popular culture, the general sense of a remote and self-absorbed Washington.
But most Tea Party leaders emphasize three general principles. The first is “fiscal responsibility,” which includes a strong aversion to huge federal deficits and the yawning national debt. This element also includes an attack on federal policies that constrict the economic freedom of citizens through excessive taxation. The second principle is “constitutionally limited government,” which implies states’ rights and the protection of individual liberties from federal intrusion. And the third is “free markets,” seen by Tea Party adherents as the protection of intertwined “individual and economic liberty.”
In short, the Tea Party outlook is part of a long tradition in American politics. It harkens back to the politics of Andrew Jackson during his battles with Henry Clay. Both the Jackson and Clay traditions have reverberated through American politics for nearly 200 years. Clay and his followers wanted to consolidate greater political and economic power in Washington so it could be wielded on behalf of federal public works such as roads, bridges and canals. Jackson’s hallmark principles, on the other hand, were limited government and strict construction of the Constitution, both of which animate today’s Tea Party. The movement also harkens back to the more recent politics of Ronald Reagan, who echoed Jackson’s call for smaller government and strict construction of constitutional powers.
The third question centers on how the Tea Party will influence American politics in the coming years. It would seem that the movement is in part a response to the policies of President Obama, who has sought to bring about the greatest consolidation of federal power since Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s. Hence, it can be predicted that the movement will throw whatever political weight it can muster against Obama when he faces re-election in 2012.
But the real battle now is against the Republican Party, which didn’t exactly embrace Tea Party principles when George W. Bush was president. Indeed, much of the flow of American politics that angers Tea Party adherents – increased federal spending, growing deficits, Washington’s earmark culture, the looming entitlement crises – were in full force during the Bush years. That’s why Tea Party adherents are so bent on busting up the Washington establishment by first busting up the GOP. In that sense, they resemble the Goldwater insurgency that took over the Republican Party in 1964 as a means of later taking over the country. That intraparty strategy differed from the later independent party rebellions of Wallace and Perot, but the political principles surrounding insurgency politics remain the same.
As for today’s Tea Party partisans, they don’t trust Washington, which they see as a place of mutual back-scratching, earmark collaborations, power grabs and what seems like unlimited amounts of money sloshing around for buying votes and for the personal aggrandizement of elected officeholders and their minions. The Tea Party aim is to attack that political establishment by capturing the forces of the Republican Party and then directing those forces against the perceived entrenched power of Washington.
Will it succeed? Not clear. But it is clear that this political phenomenon, which burst upon the scene so unexpectedly and has rumbled along with such force the past year and a half, isn’t going away anytime soon. It will continue to wreak havoc in the precincts of establishment politics until this establishment finds a way to siphon off a big portion of Tea Party anger with a brand of politics that absorbs at least some of its sentiment. History suggests there is no other way to tame this beast.
By Robert W. Merry
“This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR”
Photo by Fibonacci Blue
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