Reading the Tea Party Leaves

Will we see a repeat of 1994-or 1964?


My apologies to Buffalo Springfield. But what's happening with the Tea Party movement, and where it's going, ain't exactly clear.  All we know at this point is that the villagers have pitchforks and torches, and are marching up the hill. But will they burn the castle of the Al Franken monster in Congress, or will they join Sarah Palin and her populist following and simply go RINO (Republican In Name Only) hunting? The point is that we could be heading toward 1994 all over again. Or toward 1964. The tea leaves are there for the reading. Either way, it should be interesting.  

Here's my prediction: Years from now, it will turn out that the biggest story of 2009 was the Tea Parties and the meteoric rise of their standard bearer, Sarah Palin, after her strange July resignation from Alaska's governorship. (Sorry Tiger!)

The movement was at first dismissed as "Astroturf," or not real grass roots. Participants have been called "Tea baggers," with a salacious subtext. But the anger and persistence of these activists has finally started to surprise many in the mainstream media. The spark that seemed to light the 2009 Tea Party gatherings was CNBC analyst Rick Santelli's famous February 19 on-air rant about the housing bailout. But the stacked kindling that set the pot boiling has been around much longer in the critiques of political aspirants, most notably those of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).  And of course many libertarians have pressed on these issues since at least 1974, or perhaps since 1776.

The major media outlets, however, even so-called "conservatives" such as New York Times columnist David Brooks, are contemptuous. Tea Parties are "The world's largest conventions of misspelled signs." Tea Party hero Sarah Palin is "a joke." One wry pundit mocked Palin's appeal: "Finally we have a candidate for the people who loved George Bush's certainty, but were bothered by his education, rationality, and executive experience."

It will soon become clear that the anger behind the Tea Parties was the first sign of something bigger, something much deeper. But of what exactly? My tea leaves reveal two possible futures.  First, this new celebration of conservative values may well be focused and directed by the Republican Party, reprising the electoral destruction of the Democrats in the 1994 midterms.

But the second possibility is that it will be the Republican Party, not the Democrats, that is torn apart trying to deal with its own internal contradictions. That's what happened in the disastrous but portentous 1964 election: The GOP stood up for principle in its platform, and fell down at the ballot box.  

There are already a number of signs that the 1964 outcome is a real possibility. The special election in New York's 23rd Congressional district pitted a RINO (Dede Scozzafava) against a Democrat (Bill Owens). But the "real conservatives" of the district (which has been reliably Republican since 1993) rose up to smite the RINO with an equally real conservative alternative (Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman).

Scozzafava was knocked out of the race by the backlash. Which meant the Democrat won! And the folks on the right saw it, and said that it was good. Several different polls, most recently by Rasmussen earlier this month, show that a majority of people who call themselves "conservative" now prefer to vote against Republicans who do not share their values. And they persist in this opinion, even if it means that Democrats win elections.

In 1964, the right wing seized control of the Republican National Convention at the "Cow Palace" in San Francisco. They nominated Barry Goldwater, a "real conservative" who represented fundamental values of the right, and had no earthly prospect of winning.

Is 1964 happening again? Is that where the Tea Parties are headed? Remember, Ron Paul and the "Liberty Republicans" of 2007 and 2008 were not primarily running against Democrats. They were—and are—trying to take over the Republican Party from the inside.

Losing sight of that fact seems to have blinded many in the chattering classes to the real significance of the Tea Party rebellion. But there are clear echoes, evident in the conservative opposition to Republican Gov. Charlie Crist in Florida, and gubernatorial candidate (and long-time Republican Senator) Kay Bailey Hutchinson in Texas. Their toughest fights will come from fierce primary challenges by populist "Tea Party" conservatives, not general elections against the Democrats.

A word of full disclosure: I am myself an ex-Republican. (Very emphatically ex, thank you.) That's because of the war, the runaway growth of government, the deficits, and the nosy nanny intrusiveness of social policy and drug laws. But even though I think the party is floundering, I'm not sure it is completely hopeless.

Further, it's true that the approval ratings of President Barack Obama and the Congressional Democrats have fallen sharply. The problem with predicting a new 1994, and a Republican renaissance, is that Republican approval ratings have fallen also. The GOP discredited itself while in power by running up the deficit and growing the size of government, and it is discrediting itself now by missing the significance of the Tea Party revolution in its base.

From a Republican perspective, and taking the long view, there's this to be said: In 1964 a sharp turn towards principle led the Republicans to wander for four years in the electoral desert. But 1964 also laid the foundation for the majorities that put Republicans in the White House, starting in 1968, for all but 12 of the next 40 years. So enjoy your tea, unsweetened.

Michael Munger is a professor of economics, and the chair of the political science department, at Duke University. He has written on policy analysis and cost benefit analysis of government programs.