CNN Debate Exposes the Myth of the Tea 'Party'

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.

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Greg Ferenstein writes about public policy for TechCrunch.

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