Have Some Tea, but Don't Throw a Party Yet

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The Tea Partiers, as John Judis points out, are a particular breed of conservative populists. It is easiest to define them by their media consumption habits and how they express their rage against the establishment. Their sacred texts are a particular and circumscribed view of the Constitution, is filtered through the brains of Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, Michelle Bachmann and others. Ye shall know them by the metaphors they use to describe the world, and how violently they describe the actions of the party in power today and the motivations (always deep and conspiratorial) they divine for those actions. 

They are angry conservatives, but not all angry conservatives are Tea Partiers. Regular conservatives are motivated by simpler triggers: they don't like Barack Obama because he's a liberal pursuing liberal policies and they are conservatives who prefer conservative policies.  In Kentucky, Rand Paul was nominated by regular Republican conservatives angry at government and anxious about their future. These voters seem to be mad at Washington because it is Washington; they are eager to hear bracing voices like Paul's. 

To date, TP movement just isn't doing what a political movement needs to do.  They are not emulating the liberal Netroots organizing model of 2004 and 2006. GOPers aren't registering too many new voters. The movement is decentralized, and that hinders the type of coordination one needs to harness energies for political action. 

It is not storming the gates, as Jim VandeHei claims. It has not defeated the establishment en masse. Rand Paul is Ron's son. That cannot -- CANNOT -- be underestimated as a motive force in propelling his candidacy forward. He was Rand Paul, son of Ron well before he was a Tea Party avatar. He had the Paul revolution money backing up his campaign.  

It was by no means the decisive factor in throwing Robert Bennett out of his Utah Senate seat, although it became a convenient alternative self-identification for Republicans. What killed Martha Coakley in Massachusetts? Not just the Tea Party movement. Her own feckless campaign and total lack of enthusiasm by the majority party's faithful adherents.  The Tea Party is certainly vocal, and it is capable of attracting attention, but so far as I can tell, it is not driving public opinion. 

(Recall that the Democrats appeared to have this oh-crap moment when Howard Dean took over the party -- remember when endorsements didn't matter, campaign committees didn't matter ... until they did, once again, in 2008?)

Add to that the appropriation of the movement by racists and hecklers and the marginal conspiracy theorists AND THEN the ambitions of very crazy TP candidates, and you've got a recipe for an extremely spicy but ultimately unsatisfying goulash.  Lou Dobbs and Joseph Farah are keynoting the next major Tea Party event. Majorities are not built on the backs of these two men.

The seminal Tea Party moment was health care -- and before that, the Waxman-Markey climate bill; and the stimulus, which, you'll recall, the Republican establishment the Tea Party is supposed to rail against nearly defeated; and the bailouts, which actually kicked the movement off before it was nourished by lots of money from the usual Republican interests.

The economy is improving slowly. The bailouts are being unwound. Health car reform is unpopular but Armageddon has not arrived. Now it seems as if the Tea Party movement is narrowing into an inward-looking nostalgic Constitutionalism that is typical of reactionary politics in times of economic turbulence. There is a code; a way of knowing; a frequency that Tea Partiers tune in to.  But since taxes, race (substitute heterogeneity), meritocracy, taxes and income redistribution are the connective tissue through which these resentments are nourished, to the extent that the movement grows, it will be interesting to see whether the Tea Party-specific attributes grow along with it -- or simply that many conservatives call themselves Tea Partiers as a way of avoiding the dreaded Republican label. 

The Tea Party will be a powerful force in the midterm election, but it will be one of many powerful forces, like organized labor, and organized liberals, and pro-lifers, and ...  

Spending is now universally acknowledged to be a "problem." That's in quotes because there's a healthy debate on the left about whether deficit spending during a recession is unwise, and whether the usual suspects (Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security) are the wrong targets for deficit hawks.  Something about waste and excess and bailouts is just distasteful in an age when families are forced to tighten their belts. There is a sense that most of the increased spending helps people who are not like them -- either they're richer and more settled, or they are poorer and less deserving.  But these sentiments seem to be vague and unformed, and if they are shared by most white voters, it does not mean that most white voters share the peculiar sensibilities of the Tea Party movement. 

The Democratic Party's basic problem is that the more successful Obama becomes, the angrier conservatives get. The basic solution here is to run good races and appropriate candidates and take it relatively (but not totally) slow between now and the election. A successful Obama may energize conservatives but it also energizes Democrats. That's why, I think, Democratic numbers eveywhere are inching upwards. Inching ... not zooming. 

The TPs are one manifestation of conservative anger and fear. It is in the Democratic Party's interest to make it THE manifestation.   
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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