I am certainly no fan of the Tea Party -- they represent a dangerous and extremist facet of the American character. What's more, I disagree with the view that the Tea Party victories in the Republican primaries will provide a big electoral boost to the Democrats in the midterms. But there are a couple of ways in which the Tea Party could help the progressive cause. One is tactical, the other substantive.
First, the tactics. There are several dozen Republican-held Congressional seats in districts where Republicans hold less than a ten percent registration advantage over Democrats. In those districts, Tea Party candidates (not those who won Republican primaries) are flocking to run as independents. If history is any precedent, these candidates may be able to peel away as much as twenty percent of conservative Republican and Independent votes. This would put some Democratic challengers within striking distance of winning.
For example, in the 26th District in California, entrenched Republican David Dreier has never faced serious competition in his nearly thirty years in office. (Full disclosure -- I was a candidate for this Congressional seat in 2006). The current Democratic nominee, Russ Warner, has only a modest war chest in comparison with Dreier's coffers, and limited name recognition. However, a Tea Party candidate, David Miller, has emerged as a conservative alternative to the entrenched Dreier. Miller's website reads like a Tea Party mantra, from its focus on the Constitution, free market principles and the Second Amendment to its opposition to health care reform and same-sex marriage.
In a district where registration of independents has boomed and voting for independent candidates doubled between 2004 and 2008, Miller may be able to capture a significant number of votes. All politics are local, and it is hard to predict how a disaffected electorate will vote on the local level, but a Tea Party challenger who attracts support from conservatives may pull enough votes away from incumbent Republicans to win back a few seats, even in a year when Democratic turnout could be low. In a midterm election year, a few seats could be enough to keep the House in Democratic hands.
Okay, so much for the tactics. What about the substantive boost that the Tea Party can provide progressives? Let's go back to the 2008 election, which was all about hope and change. Obama rode the crest of that wave, and then faced the harshest economic recession in nearly eighty years. Despite the incessant attacks and stonewalling by Republicans, President Obama still has higher midterm approval ratings than either Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton. Perhaps more surprising -- given the constant drumbeat from Fox news and conservative talk show hosts -- is that voters have a more favorable view of Democrats than Republicans, even though they don't like either party very much.
So where does the Tea Party fit in? In my opinion, the Tea Partiers are simply the most extreme and reactionary expression of a much broader and deeper sentiment -- the desire for real political change. While the Tea Partiers snatch the headlines with their anti-government, xenophobic and even racist rants, most of the country is still committed to the kind of positive change that Obama promised during his "Yes, we can" campaign. The election of 2010 is not that much different. Most Americans still want constructive change in the country -- except that with the onset of the economic crisis, positive change is even more critical to our future.
And, speaking of our future, people also want hope. That is what has been missing from the Obama presidency up to this point. Instead of a message of hope, we have been getting policy discussions. Instead of inspiration, we've been getting a lesson in Washington sausage making. So far, Obama has failed to passionately pursue the cause of change and the message of hope, which the majority of Americans are still seeking. The 2008 election was not about a change of administration, or even a change in legislative priorities. It was about a change in the political culture. It was about listening carefully to the voice of the people - not the talking heads or the corporate interests or the party leaders -- and fighting for their cause.
FDR is still a great example of a leader who championed the message of hope and change. Sure, he told the American people it would be tough, but then he launched a massive effort for fundamental reform, despite blistering attacks from his opponents. And he was a vicious counterpuncher, knocking his enemies back on their heels when they opposed him. All the while, he repeated the message of hope, over and over again, promising the American people that together they would overcome adversity. The result was a great transformation of American society and politics that paved the way for the successes of the twentieth century. And, along the way, FDR created a powerful political coalition that would endure for more than sixty years.
Remember, it wasn't the Tea Party that first brought up the idea of change in the political culture of this country. For many years, it has been the progressive movement that has championed advances in every level of American society -- from Social Security and Medicare to civil rights, equality of opportunity and freedom of choice. 2008 was a watershed election, an outcry from a large majority of Americans (not a tiny bunch of Tea Party extremists) for a fundamental change in the politics of our country. What the Tea Party movement reminds us is that the promise of change must not be abandoned to a few fanatics on the right who would march us backwards into a darker and less compassionate past.