How difficult is it to construct a typology of the conservative movement today?
How does Ron Paul relate to Sarah Palin? Palin to the Tea Partiers? The Tea Partiers to Paul? The Tea Parties to themselves? Do the Tea Partiers overlap with the Republican base? Are they entirely contained within it? What mental schemas link Tea Partiers with each other and divide them from the Republican Party establishment? How do they prioritize national security? Will they be able to organize so as to magnify their apparent power?
First, a few things to clear up.
1. The Tea Partiers are a movement within the Republican Party; it is increasing the energy density inside the GOP; very few Tea Partiers are true independents. It remains to be determined how many of them are not registered to vote, or how many of them are unreliable Republican voters.
2. There are different Tea Party movements; some parts seem more influenced by different issue sets than others; it is mostly a shared sensibility; a few common strands run between them: outrage and anger at Washington, and a diffuse but palpable sense that the Elites and the Obama administration are changing the way American works -- and looks and acts -- for the worse.
3. The Republican primary base is different than the Ron Paul revolutionaries, many of whom are not registered Republican. They'll be more influential in open primaries than closed primaries.
4. Ron Paul is really the only libertarian with street cred. (Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor? He gets the issues but doesn't speak the language well.)
5. The Tea Partiers and Ron Paul's libertarians overlap to some degree, but they differ strongly on national security, and the Tea Partiers are, generally, more ready to identify as Republicans than Paulites are. They're also older.
6. Sarah Palin seems like a natural candidate for the Tea Party crowd; from a very un-elite state, anti-technocrat; anti-shades of gray; she's taken on the elites and lost, and has a cross to bear; their embrace of her, for the most part, reveals how orthodox the TP movement actually is. Problem for Palin: if she's seen as part of the establishment, she won't play as well with the Tea Partiers. She really will have to run as an outsider and forcibly reject, for example, the Weekly Standard types who are rooting for her.
7. Uniting the Paulites and the Tea Parties is a view about the the role of government, expressed in the familiar cliches: low taxes, creeping socialism, lay off. And, I would argue, a geo-racial-ethnic anxiety about the emerging majority-minority nation and its attendent economic effects. When the immigration debate flares up, watch out.
8. Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty have no chance whatsover to share the sensibility of the Tea Partiers and the Paulites, certainly not in their current incarnations. They don't speak the language; and because the movement is not about particular issues, their resumes don't particularly matter. Romney and Pawlenty have a much better chance with that portion of the GOP base which does not identify with the Tea Party movement -- which is, by definition, more establishmentarian and hierarchical. The Tea Partiers, at least, have a vehicle for advancing a candidate; Libertarians (the Paulites) really don't, because they are...libertarians and don't like to be all collective-y.
9. Romney could not be positioned more poorly to harness the Tea Partiers, the Paulites, and the social conservatives right now: protestant evangelicals still think he's a Mormon of the suspect kind (unlike, say, John Huntsman Jr., who comes off as a real guy); he is a national security hawk at a time when there is a growing "get us out of there" movement within the base of the GOP; he is unlikely to embrace libertarianism (gambling, marijuana, civil unions) that would transform his political image and attract some of the Paulites; his immigration positioning is solid enough, but his association with the GOP establishment -- he's seen as the establishment candidate -- will make anything he says suspect. A deft candidate, which Romney can be, can find a way to articulate a muscular vision for national security (pro "enhanced interrogation," anti-Gitmo closing) but simultaneously argue that American strength ought not be projected, lest it be diluted.
10. Tim Pawlenty is a credentialed candidate during a period where credentials matter not. It remains to be seen whether the Republican establishment has enough control over its primaries as Democrats had over theirs in 2004, able to soften up the insurgent (Howard Dean), who self-destructed (sort of), and allowed the media to pronounce the establishment frontrunner (John Kerry) as the winner. Note, though, how Dean's blueprint influenced Kerry's candidacy.
What percentage of the GOP base right now sees the party as Howard Dean saw Rahm Emanuel back in 2003? -- as a team trying to accumulate members to get power -- in the Republican version, power to pass big government Republicanism, i.e. adventures abroad for "national greatness" (read: neocons ... for Dean's voters -- this was the DNC or the Richard Holbrooke crowd).
Now that we've cleaned the slate....where do we begin?
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Marc Ambinder is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.