Don't Blame the Tea Party

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If the polls are right--and they are remarkably consistent--Democrats will take a drubbing next week, likely losing control of the House and barely holding on to their majority in the Senate. It is possible that such a powerful repudiation will cause them to engage in some serious soul searching and consider whether they have taken the country in a direction the people (it's their country, after all) don't want to go.

But don't count on it. Some people just have a hard time believing that others, if they're sane and decent, don't agree with them. Therefore, they assume there must be other, more sinister, reasons for what is happening this year. The excuses are already in place: convenient "explanations" that dismiss the possibility that the Democrats have made a botch of things.

One is the "Tea Party" excuse. If there is a common theme among Democratic hand-wringers it is that shadowy right-wing operatives have assembled a vast network of well-funded crazy, stupid, and racist people who are working in unison to undermine decent policies and replace high-minded public officials with backwoods bumpkins. There are at least two serious problems with that "analysis."

First, as revealed in an in-depth study by the Washington Post, the idea of a wealthy network of Tea Parties is a figment of the press's, and Democrats', imaginations. These were the highlights of the Post's report:

Membership in most "Tea Party" units is small and largely unorganized: fewer than 50 members attend the meetings of nearly half the groups. Three-quarters describe their groups as informal, with no governance structure, and only one in 10 act in coordination with a national organization. The median Tea Party treasury amounts to $500 and 95 percent of the money comes from local sources and individuals.

Are these Sarah Palin's shock troops? Glenn Beck's acolytes? Asked who best represented the Tea Party, Palin was chosen by only 14 percent, Beck by 7 percent, Jim DeMint by 6 percent.

What is the issue that drives Tea Party members? Let us repair to the ever-wise words of James Carville: "It's the economy, stupid." Government spending and the increasing deficit were at the top of the list. Immigration, same-sex marriage, abortion, and protecting gun rights were the principal concerns of 1 percent or less.

The second problem with the "Tea Party" excuse is that despite the focus on the occasional nut case like Delaware's Christine O'Donnell, Democrats are not losing to a band of unqualified unknowns. In Indiana, Republican senatorial candidate Dan Coats is a former U.S. representative and senator; Todd Rokita, who seems well poised to win a House seat, is the current Indiana secretary of state. In Illinois, Senate candidate Mark Kirk, who may capture Barack Obama's old seat, is a member of Congress; the Ohio governorship will likely fall to John Kasich, a former Republican congressional leader; Ohio's Senate seat will probably go to Rob Portman, a former House member and administration official; Democrat Tom Perriello appears to be losing his House seat to Robert Hurt, a veteran state legislator; Florida's likely new Senator, Marco Rubio, was speaker of the state House, etc.

As for the high-profile "Tea Party" victories--O'Donnell received only 30,000 votes in a state with nearly a million residents; her victory was largely a result of Mike Castle's poor voter turnout operation. Utah has nearly 3 million residents; Senator Robert Bennett was denied re-nomination by only 3,500 of them. In both cases, the "villain" was not a Tea Party cabal but absurd laws that allow political parties to use closed primaries and conventions to control access to the general election ballot. In Alaska, Lisa Murkowski's primary election loss was not a result of a Palin vendetta but of a lingering discontent rooted in Murkowski's appointment to the Senate by her daddy, a governor whose unpopularity led to Palin's upset victory over him when he ran for re-election.

Democrats are consoling themselves with the pretense that what we're seeing is not an anti-Democrat uprising but a rejection of both parties. There is some truth to that--more than 40 percent of American voters today consider themselves Independents, and Republicans are at least as unpopular as Democrats, maybe more so. But Republicans aren't getting knocked off in this year's elections; the anger is aimed directly at Democrats and it's largely fueled not by Republican activists but by those very Independents who helped elect Barack Obama two years ago (which makes it hard to argue that the "rebellion" is race-based) and have turned strongly against the Democrats this year.

Then there is the money argument. It's true that there is too much undisclosed money in the process and I strongly agree that all campaign spending should be publicly reported; democracy requires transparency. But Democrats are quick to point to contributions from conservatives and businessmen and conveniently ignore the spending of their own extremely rich allies. More conveniently, they brush aside the spending of labor unions, some of which (SEIU, for example) receive their money at least in part from people who did not choose to join the union but were forced to do so in order to keep their jobs.

A lot can happen in a week and as of this moment, Democrats have not lost a single seat in either the House or Senate. Perhaps they will have no need for these flimsy attempts to explain away a massive repudiation. We'll see.

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Mickey Edwards spent 16 years in Congress and 16 years teaching at Harvard and Princeton. He is a director of The Constitution Project and wrote Reclaiming Conservatism. More

Mickey Edwards was a member of Congress for 16 years and a chairman of the House Republican leadership's policy committee. After leaving Congress, he taught at Harvard for 11 years, where he was voted the Kennedy School's most outstanding teacher, and at Princeton for five years. He currently runs a political leadership program for elected officials as Vice President of the Aspen Institute and teaches defense policy and foreign policy at George Washington University. He has been a weekly columnist for The L.A. Times and The Chicago Tribune and is a weekly commentator on National Public Radio. Edwards served for five years as national chairman of the American Conservative Union and the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. He was one of three founding trustees of the Heritage Foundation. In 1980, he directed more than a dozen joint House-Senate policy advisory task forces for Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign. He is a director of The Constitution Project and has chaired task forces for the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution. He served on the American Bar Association task force that condemned President George W. Bush, and his most recent book, Reclaiming Conservatism, was published in 2008.

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