Monday, May 03, 2010

A Mad Tea Party

There is an undeniable "Alice in Wonderland" quality to Democratic spin on the meaning and nature of the Tea Party movement.
"This piece of rudeness was more than Alice could bear: she got up in great disgust, and walked off; the Dormouse fell asleep instantly, and neither of the others took the least notice of her going, though she looked back once or twice, half hoping that they would call after her...`At any rate I'll never go there again!' said Alice as she picked her way through the wood. `It's the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!'
- Lewis Carroll - Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
It is very very important to Alice Democrats that the Tea Party not make sense and be of no consequence. As long as the Tea Party is of no consequence, it is perfectly reasonable to just turn their back and walk away. But... why do they keep looking over their shoulder? Perhaps the nagging fear of what it means to Democrats if - just if - it is a legitimate movement. Best not to think of that.

So we are treated to endless and increasingly creative efforts to demonize and characterize the Tea Party movement in a negative light. The left framing of the Tea Party has the distinct smell of "lets throw everything at the wall and see what sticks" desperation. We are simultaneously lectured on why the movement is both extremely dangerous and completely unimportant. The framing runs the gamut of "phony populists" (ably deconstructed by Tully in a recent post), Fox News controlled puppets, neo-Nazi radicals, a privileged country club set, rednecks, terrorists, a side show, stupid people, racists, affluent educated elitists, an over-hyped media construct, bullies, fear-mongers, illegitimate, animals, unimportant, dangerous, kooks, seditious, disconnected from reality, fascists, closet Arizonans and worst of all - Republicans. No matter that many of these labels are mutually exclusive and impossible to be true at the same time. Democrats have taken the White Queen's advice to heart:
Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said. "One can't believe impossible things."

"I dare say you haven't had much practice," said the queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
I'm not saying that libertarians, conservatives and Republicans are any less self-serving or better at articulating exactly what the Tea Party movement is about, but at least they are not aggressively and childishly insulting. I mean, is it possible that the tiresome epithet "teabagger" can still be considered edgy and amusing among the cognoscenti in the progressive echo chamber? Apparently so - watch Chris Matthews split a gut laughing at Bill Maher's comedic "teabagger" genius:

Would the GOP love to co-opt the movement? Yes, certainly. But - just guessing here - I suspect that being wooed by Republicans feels better to Tea Partiers than being spit in the face by Democrats.

Frankly, I don't think the hodge-podge of interests that make up the Tea Party movement is all that hard to figure out. It is a group that self-selects by prioritizing one issue above all others - federal spending and the deficit. Get past that issue, and there is little policy agreement among the Tea Party factions. But that does not really matter, because in 2010 they agree one issue trumps all others - It's the spending, stupid.

In contrast to the disparagement from the left, the Tea Party is getting a lot of advice from the right. Some of it is pretty good.

Richard Viguerie - a self-described old-school conservative has this "advice for the tea party":
  • Be independent
  • Go on a policy offensive.
  • Pressure institutions to change.
  • Get involved, then stay involved.
  • Avoid the third-party trap.
"Most important, tea partiers must remain distinct from both political parties. The GOP would like nothing better than to co-opt the movement and control the independent conservatives who are its members. But we must keep in mind that perhaps the single biggest mistake of the conservative movement was becoming an appendage of the Republican Party."
John Samples, author of the "The Struggle to Limit Government" put his "advice to tea partiers" in a video:

Ed Morrissey distills Sample's advice, and dissents:
  • Republicans aren’t always your friends.
  • Some tea partiers like big government.
  • Democrats aren’t always your enemies.
  • Smaller government demands restraint abroad.
  • Leave social issues to the states
"Democrats may not always be opponents to Tea Party instincts, but their current leadership is completely antithetical to those values. That is why endorsing Democrats for Congress in this cycle, even conservative Democrats like Walt Minnick in Idaho, is probably a bad idea. If Democrats keep their majority in November, Nancy Pelosi and her leadership team will keep control of the committee chairs and the agenda in the House. The only way to get rid of that leadership is to elect people other than Democrats to Congress this year, and that means Republicans."
Sample replies to Morrissey:
"I said in the video that Tea Party people should recognize that “Democrats are not always the enemy.” Morrissey rightly says I should not talk about enemies in domestic politics. He adds that the current House Democratic caucus does not deserve support because its leaders favor expanding government. He’s right. Divided government is what we need now. However, I had in mind the more centrist Democrats that supported the tax and spending cuts of 1981 and the tax reform of 1986. I am urging Tea Party people to avoid becoming too partisan. Perhaps some of them will still be in Congress in 2011."
Sample is right. So is Morrisey and Viguerie. The Tea Party must be independent of both political parties, and they need to vote straight Republican in the 2010 mid-terms.

The Tea Party will never be a majority and, at best, can hope to field a 6%-12% general election swing vote in a largely polarized partisan electorate. But that is enough to shape the political landscape if the movement can organize into a predictable voting block. To do that, they need an organizing principle. I have a suggestion - voting consistently for divided government. This is a voting heuristic that speaks directly to the Tea Party's signature issue - out of control federal spending. Divided government has been shown by economists, political scientists, and historians to limit the growth of spending. and the growth of the state.

My advice to the Tea Party, is the same widely ignored advice I proffered to politically impotent libertarians as a prescription for their embarrassing electile dysfunction. Paraphrasing from that post:
What is needed, is an organizing principle that is so obvious, so logical, and so clear-cut, that no leadership is needed, no parties are needed, no candidates are needed, and no infrastructure is needed. Ideally it is this easy: You think about the principle, and you know how to vote. That organizing principle exists. It is voting for Divided Government. It is absolutely clear-cut and easy to understand. Divided Government is documented by Niskanen to work in a practical real-world manner to restrain the growth of the state. As a voting strategy it can be implemented immediately. More importantly, it can collectively be implemented individually regardless of Tea Party faction and independent of major political party leadership.

Whatever the percentage of the electorate that the Tea Party represents, whether it is 9% or 20%, if they vote as a block for divided government, they immediately become the brokers of an evenly split partisan electorate. They arguably become the single most potent voting block in the country, specifically because they are willing to vote either Democratic or Republican as a block. Specifically because they are not fused to one party or the other.
The divided government vote in 2010 is a straight Republican vote for the Senate and House of Representatives. If the Republican Party succeeds in retaking the majority in either legislative branch, the divided government vote in 2012 is to re-elect Barack Obama. Will the Tea Party take my advice? Go ask Alice:
"One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree. Which road do I take?" she asked. "Where do you want to go?" was his response. "I don't know," Alice answered. "Then," said the cat, "it doesn't matter." - Lewis Carroll - Alice's adventures in Wonderland

Divided and Balanced.™
Now that is fair.