CNN Debate Exposes the Myth of the Tea 'Party'

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It was a joint venture with the Tea Party Express. But was there anything about this debate different from other Republican ones?

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The CNN-Tea Party Express debate Monday night may have inadvertently provided the final piece of evidence needed to squash the widely believed myth that members of the tea party are somehow ideologically distinct from Republicans. At it, the Republican presidential hopefuls delivered talking points and plans on small government, defense, and immigration that were carbon copies of the statements they'd made at the previous primary debates. In other words, though political scientists and pollsters have known for months that self-proclaimed tea partiers are nearly indistinguishable from Republicans, the presidential debaters implicitly confirmed this by pandering to the audience with the exact same plans that they've proposed at the non-tea party debates.

Tea partiers may claim to be unaffiliated with Republicans, pollster Ann Selzer tells The Atlantic, "But, when we look at issues, majorities of each group support and oppose the same things."

Famed Harvard professor of Political Science Robert Putnam has not only confirmed Selzer's conclusions, but dispelled the notion that the tea party movement is a collection of political newcomers, compelled to civic action by egregious big-government Republicans or the Obama administration's actions.

"The Tea Party's supporters today were highly partisan Republicans long before the Tea Party was born, and were more likely than others to have contacted government officials. In fact, past Republican affiliation is the single strongest predictor of Tea Party support today," he recently wrote in a New York Times op-ed.

Nor does evidence support the myth that the tea party is a libertarian-leaning faction of the conservative movement. "Americans who support the conservative Christian movement, sometimes known as the religious right, also overwhelmingly support the Tea Party," noted a February Pew poll, finding that tea partiers were more likely to support traditional conservative positions on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

In every case (Selzer's polls, Putnam's data, and Pew's research), tea partiers are simply more strident conservatives, less likely to hold Democratic beliefs than the average Republican. Unsurprisingly, last night, polling-aware primary candidates marched in lockstep with Republican core values, offering the exact same plans and rhetoric that defined the last three presidential debates.

On economic issues, candidates cheerfully paraded their existing small-government credentials: Herman Cain wants to require that every new federal regulation be matched by the abolishment of an existing regulation, Rick Santorum will cut the current 35 percent corporate tax rate to zero, Rick Perry touted litigation reform, and everyone on stage enthusiastically wants to gut the current health-care law.

On the dicier issue of entitlements, Perry looked straight into the camera and said that keeping Social Security for seniors was a "slam-dunk guarantee," but warned that it would not be available for younger workers. In a bit of deja vu from the Fox News debate last week, Cain again followed up a lively, but solution-less back-and-forth between Romney and Perry on Social Security with his own plan of op-out private retirement accounts.

On defense, in response to a question about reducing military spending, Newt Gingrich implicitly sided with strong defense, arguing: "I think we are at the edge of an enormous crisis in national security. I think that we are greatly underestimating the threat to this country. And I think that the day after we celebrated the 10th anniversary of 9/11 we should be reminded exactly what is at stake if a foreign terrorist gets a nuclear weapon into this country."

When Rick Santorum was asked the same question by CNN two months ago about military spending vs. national deficits, he held steadfast on the question of a strong military, contending that a proper defense: "means that [troops] are not just positioned in the Middle East, but around the world. That means we have to have the ability to confront those threats from around the world, which means we need basing around the world."

Huntsman and Ron Paul, for their parts, hewed to their conviction that troops must be withdrawn from Afghanistan.

As for immigration, the only noticeable specifics discussed were whether a fence could keep out undocumented workers. Michele Bachmann added a decidedly non-libertarian policy to the discussion, contending that immigrants "have to agree to learn to speak the English language, learn American history and our Constitution" -- a position she proclaimed in the exact same one-sentence style five days earlier.

While CNN omitted any discussion of religious issues, it should be noted that Bachmann, who lays claim to starting the Tea Party Caucus to Congress, has signed the Marriage Vow pledge, which promises a "steadfast embrace of a federal Marriage Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which protects the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman in all of the United States." Despite defending a small government philosophy, the strongest tea party member in Congress wants to overturn New York's recent gay marriage law with a federal amendment to the Constitution.

If the candidates seemed more conservative then the typical Republican, such partisan-leanings are the natural evolution of the presidential candidate life-cycle: pander to the base as a primary candidate to secure the nomination and then shift towards the center to win the majority. Barack Obama did same in 2008 after winning the nomination, softening his language on gun-control, Social Security, and prosecuting telecom companies for wiretapping once he'd wrapped up the win.

The same will likely be the case for the eventual Republican nominee, who can be expected to slide a little left to win over coveted independents. In other words, last night's tea party debate, was, in substance, a primary debate, or as they have been called the last three times, a Republican debate.

Image credit: REUTERS/Scott Audette

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Greg Ferenstein writes about public policy for TechCrunch.

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