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The Uneasy Marriage Between Tea Partiers and the GOP

Recent polls show their movement is thought of more favorably by Americans than either the Democratic or Republican Parties. Political independents are said to be attracted more each day. Progressive dissenters against the “pro-corporate” policies of the Obama administration pine for alliances with them.

But at the same time, Republican politicians constantly ape their rhetoric and seek to deploy them against their Democratic, and sometimes intraparty, enemies.

So the question persists: Is the Tea Party Movement an independent “third force” in American politics? Or is it essentially a right-wing faction aimed at the conquest of the Republican Party?

There are no snap answers to these questions. Tea Party activists unsurprisingly stress their independence from both parties, and their hostility towards the “Republican establishment.” The grassroots and citizen-based nature of the movement is constantly promoted as a bedrock principle. And even when tea-partiers operate in the conventional electoral setting of Republican primaries, their candidates are billed as insurgents, not as intraparty warriors.

But the fact remains that these candidates are almost invariably self-identified Republicans, campaigning on traditional conservative Republican themes, and cooperating with Republican politicians tactically and strategically on major issues. There is zero visible outreach to Democrats of any stripe. And to the extent there is a consensus Tea Party ideology, it is indistinguishable in any significant way from the longstanding agenda of the right wing of the GOP—particular the agenda of the most recent past, when conservatives have sought conspicuously to disassociate themselves from the record of the Bush administration.

Republican politicians are already very active in the movement itself. Former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, who appears to have a better than even chance of toppling popular Republican governor Charlie Crist in a Senate primary this year, is a major figure in both the Tea Party Movement and more traditional conservative GOP circles. South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, generally known as the most conservative Republican U.S. senator, has said: “We need to stop looking at the tea parties as separate from the Republican Party.” (For a look at the rise of Tea Partiers in the House, read Lydia DePillis’s excellent piece.)

What makes this sort of talk especially relevant politically is that it serves a very deep psychological need among contemporary conservative Republicans. They’ve largely succeeded in subduing those few voices in the GOP urging a old-fashioned “big tent” party that’s tolerant of ideological moderates. Now the Tea Party phenomenon offers conservative Republicans a talking point they badly need: evidence that there is a previously hidden conservative majority in the country that only a more sharply consistent conservative message can reach. In other words, electoral gold is to be found on the right, not in the center, of the ideological spectrum. But aside from a shared antipathy towards Barack Obama, “liberals,” taxes, and various other bugaboos, sealing the deal between a “reformed” GOP and Tea Party activists is a complicated proposition.

This much has been made clear by the calling of a National Tea Party Convention in Nashville next month, by a for-profit group called Tea Party Nation. Aside from the questionable right of anyone in particular to “convene” this highly decentralized movement, a $549 registration fee has raised hackles in many circles, and it’s not clear how legitimate the Nashville gathering—denounced this week by the highly influential RedState founder Erick Erickson as “scammy”—will turn out to be.

But interestingly enough, no one seems to be complaining about the speakers list put together for the National Tea Party Convention. The big keynote speaker is Sarah Palin; other featured speakers include Republican House members Michelle Bachmann and Marsha Blackburn (the latter a member of the House GOP leadership). Aside from illustrating an unusual and admirable commitment to gender equity in speaking gigs, this lineup does not exactly show uneasiness about alliances with Republican pols.

The Nashville linup also would appear to rebut another commonly held argument that the Tea Party Movement’s independence is guaranteed by its fundamentally libertarian character, so incompatible with the GOP’s heavy reliance on cultural conservatives and foreign-policy neocons. Palin is, of course, the maximum heroine of cultural conservatives. Bachmann is famous for questioning the patriotism of any and all Democrats. Beyond that, Tea Party Convention panelists include the Christian Right warhorse Rick Scarborough of Vision America (notable, among other things, for his advocacy of global conflict with Muslims) and Judge Roy Moore, the famous “Ten Commandments Judge” who’s a favorite of theocrats everywhere. No genuine libertarian would embrace this crew.

Indeed, for all the talk about the Tea Party Movement as a potential “third force” in American politics, it’s just as easy to argue that it’s mainly composed of right-wing Republican activists who have been radicalized by the political and economic events of the last couple of years, and particularly by the election of Barack Obama.

The usefulness of the Tea Party Movement in a full right-wing takeover of the Republican Party is obvious. What’s less obvious is why a close relationship with Republican politicians serves the purposes of truly independent citizen-activists disgusted by the political status quo. Republicans have swallowed a lot of Tea Party rhetoric, but they may be in the process of swallowing up the Tea Party Movement.

UPDATE: Dave Weigel of the Washington Independent, who has done some of the best reporting on the Tea Party phenomenon for many months, has published a new piece analyzing the controversy over the National Tea Party Convention and has reached some of the same conlusions I've reached about the likely swallowing up of the movement by the conservative wing of the Republican Party. 

Ed Kilgore is Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute.

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