GOP Reads The Tea Leaves

Some tea party protest organizers want nothing to do with establishment Republicans; some House Republicans, meanwhile, reportedly plan to appear at protests in their home states. Regardless, both House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) and Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), head of the GOP's House campaign arm, are applauding the tea party protests (both put out statements of support today), perhaps seeking to ride the wave of media attention and purported grassroots conservative economic populism. Boehner says the tea parties are evidence that Americans support the GOP's small-government principles. The National Republican Congressional Committee's website now contains a prominent, front-page graphic directing visitors to a tea-party-coordinating site.

"House Republicans share the American people's frustration and are proposing better solutions to reduce taxes and get Washington's fiscal house back in order," part of Boehner's statement read.

Economic populism has been part of the House GOP political playbook for some time: their rhetorical support for oil drilling in August of last year, and their opposition to both the financial bailout and President Obama's stimulus/economic agenda have expressed many of the sentiments explicit in the advertisements of tea party outrage. The GOP has used economic policy as its uniting issue so far in 2009, and I doubt anyone will be suprised if it looks to the synergy between Fox News, conservative bloggers (many of whom are sometimes critical of the GOP), and those who show up to tea party protests as a bond it can carry through to the 2010 midterms.

It may have to do so from a distance, given the pride some protesters and organizers take in having nothing to do with with the Republican Party, and the message sent by Eric Odom--leader of one of the three main organizing/facilitating groups--when he told Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, basically, that it's time for the GOP politicians to listen, not to talk.


Boehner will reportedly headline a tea party protest in Bakersfield, California today, along with Rep. Kevin McCarthy. Ben Smith Jonathan Martin has a rundown of top GOP figures' plans to attend or not, and other than Boehner, none are--that includes Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.

So far, it appears House Republicans are the most daring when it comes to approaching the tea parties. And that makes sense.

A spokesman for FreedomWorks, one of the groups helping to organize the protests, said fiscally conservative House Republicans would likely be welcomed by the protesters--while other Republicans might not be.

"If Jeff Flake shows up, he would be greeted by this crowd," FreedomWorks spokesman Adam Brandon told me on Monday, suggesting lawmakers like the earmark-crusading Rep. Flake (R-AZ) would find a warm reception. "There's that hardcore group of small-government Goldwater conservatives in the RSC [Republican Study Committee]" that would be welcome, Brandon said.

"If Senator Specter showed up, he might not be welcome," Brandon said, for instance, referencing the moderate Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

Fiscally conservative senators like Jim DeMint (R-SC) would likely receive a warm reception too, though the localized quality of the protests might help make them a more natural fit for representatives.

According to one GOP strategist I talked to, Republicans see opportunity in the protests, and an indication that the GOP's conservative economics have a foothold in the public psyche.

"I think it provides an opening," he said. "It's certainly a good indicator that there's a lot of discontent with these [Obama's] spending policies. These tea parties are a way for citizens to show they're upset."