In rapid succession, Tea Party leaders in Alaska, Ohio, and Florida recently saber-rattled GOP governors, chairs, and local party officials of various stripes. Their offense was that they were too moderate, too conciliatory to Democrats, and had strayed too badly from conservative dogma. They came back at the GOP right afterwards with a demand that virtually amounts to a demand for power sharing. It hammered the RNC to change its rules to give more power to local GOP state groups. The GOP-Tea Party feud is not new. In the days after the GOP got creamed in last November's presidential election, Tea Party leaders railed that the GOP had made its own badly ruffled election bed when it tried to be all moderate things to all people. This supposedly tossed ice water on the enthusiasm of the GOP rank and file. The Republican National Committee's near 100-page blueprint it issued in March for tweaking the party raised the temperature level on Tea Party anger even higher. Its emphasis on an aggressive court of Hispanics, minorities, and gays was seen as a flat out betrayal of fundamental GOP principles. Key GOP senators bend on immigration reform and on gun control was the last straw.
The dilemma for the GOP establishment is will the continuing palace revolt by various Tea Party factions help or hurt the GOP in the 2014 mid-term elections? There's no easy answer to this. The Tea Party obviously is far from dead. It still has enough juice in some states as shown in Alaska where it forced the local GOP chair out to get its way with GOP party leaders when they are perceived as traitors to ultra-conservative orthodoxy. Presumably, they can back their noisy clamor for orthodoxy with passion and numbers at the polls. The GOP still needs both Tea Party passion and numbers to win elections. Neither of which was there in key places in 2008 and 2012. That sealed the election and reelection of President Obama. The stakes are just as high in 2014. Many of the Tea Party-backed candidates that won election to the House in 2010 are up for reelection in 2014. The Democrat National Committee and President Obama sniff the vulnerability of many of them. They will pull out all stops to oust as many of them as possible from House seats. The Democrats goal is to take back the House.
But the Tea Party carries an even bigger trainload of baggage in 2013 than it did in years past.
The year before the 2012 presidential election, polls showed that far more Americans had an unfavorable view of the Tea Party than when it roared on the scene a couple of years earlier. The disaffection cut across all lines and that included many conservatives. The reason for the plunge in Tea Party backing in Red State districts support wasn't hard to find. When Tea Party affiliated candidates scored big victories and even upsets of GOP incumbents in some races in 2010 they had one mantra and that was to shrink government, and shrink it fast. Millions of Americans cheered their war call, and voted for the candidates that yelped it the loudest. But it's one thing to scream about big government, bloated federal spending, and whopping federal debts, and it's quite another to actually hold Congress, and by extension, the nation hostage in an uncompromising, shrill battle to chop down government. The result was that Congress was at a virtual stall for two years and public approval of Congress dropped to lows that made used car salespersons look like public champions.
The three big issues this time around are the budget, immigration reform and tougher gun control curbs. On each of these, the Tea Party appears wildly out of step with a majority of Americans. Polls and surveys on all three issues, especially gun control, have found that the overwhelming majority of Americans want Congress to take immediate and decisive action to break the lethargy and stalemate on all three issues. A dragged-out fight is simply no longer in the public cards. GOP leaders see this kind of trench warfare as an absolute prescription for political disaster that will play into the hands of Democrats. It will allow them to continue to lambaste the GOP as a hateful, vengeful party of nihilism and obstructionism. This is exactly what got the GOP into such deep hot water in the run up to the 2012 elections and party leaders saw where that went. The determination to avoid a repeat of this was the prime spur to get the handful of key GOP senators in motion to compromise on the top three issues. It was as much politics as image, an image that the GOP desperately seeks and needs to change. The Tea Party will huff, and puff and try to flex what muscle it still has left to get its way. Its success will determine much about the GOP's electoral fate next year.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.
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