Dancing With The Tea Party

Terrance Heath

"Dance with the one that brung you." It’s an old saying, and an unwritten rule in politics: stick with the strategy and/or constituency that "brung you" to power, if you want to stay in power. Dance with the one that brung you, or you might not dance at all.

But sometimes "dancing with the one that brung you" to the party can ruin your chances of getting invited back. It’s looking more and more like that’s the case with the GOP and the Tea party, according to a recent CNN poll.

Broken Tea Pot

Nearly half of all Americans have an unfavorable view of the tea party movement, putting it in the same company as the Democratic and Republican parties, according to a new national poll.

A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey released Wednesday indicates that 32 percent of the public has a favorable view of the two year old anti-tax movement, which also calls for less government spending and a more limited role for the federal government in our lives. The 32 percent favorable rating is down five points from December.

Forty-seven percent of people questioned say they have an unfavorable view of the tea party, up four points from December and an increase of 21 points from January 2010. That 47 percent is virtually identical to the 48 percent unfavorable ratings for both the Democratic party and the Republican party in the same poll.

Dancing with the one who brung you might keep your dance partner happy, but it won’t make you popular with anyone else if most people hate your date. With the tea party’s favorability plummeting, and the percentage of people with an unfavorable view of the tea party up 21 points since January, the GOP may be stuck dancing with everyone’s least favorite guest.

The next paragraph in the CNN article suggests that the GOP’s dance partner is only going to get more unpopular.

"This is the first time that a CNN poll has shown the tea party’s unfavorable ratings as high as those of the two major parties," says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. "It looks like the rise in the movement’s unfavorable rating has come mostly among people who make less than $50,000."

The article goes on to say that tea party’s unfavorable rating among the under-$50K crowd jumped 15 points since October, compared to 5 point jump among the over-$50K set. The problem is, roughly half of American household are in the under-$50K club.

That’s a problem, because dancing with the one that brung you actually hurts you when — as Dean Baker pointed out — your date is picking fights with half the party guests.

The deficit hawks insist that we have to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits now! They are busy hyperventilating over the enormous deficits, which are the result of the economic collapse, which was in turn the result of their economic mismanagement. (Wait, we are not supposed to talk about that.)

And the deficit hawks have clear ideas on how they want to deal with the costs of Social Security and Medicare over the coming decades. And it does not involve taking money from the tiny group of wealthy people who have profited enormously at the expense of the middle class over the last three decades?

But deficit hawks don’t get paid to go after rich people or the health care industry. Deficit hawks get paid to go after the benefits of middle-income people. This is why we were treated to a Washington Post column by finance industry executive Robert Pozen telling liberals that they should support his plan for raising the retirement age and cutting Social Security benefits for higher income earners.

When Pozen talks about cutting benefits for higher income earners he is not thinking of people like Peter Peterson or Robert Rubin, he has his gun sights on people earning $40,000 to $80,000 a year. In other words, Pozen wants to cut benefits for workers like schoolteachers, firefighters and nurses.

Go ahead, dance with the who brung you. But the same date that got you in to the party can get you kicked out. Last month E.J. Dionne wrote that the tea party’s biggest victory.

Thanks to the tea party, we are now told that all our problems will be solved by cutting government programs. Thus the House Republicans’ budget bill passed Saturday. They foresee nirvana if we simply reduce our spending on Head Start, Pell grants for college access, teen pregnancy prevention, clean-water programs, K-12 education and a host of other areas.

Does anyone really think that cutting such programs will create jobs or help Americans get ahead? But give the tea party guys credit: They have seized the political and media agenda and made budget cutting as fashionable as Justin Bieber was five minutes ago.

More striking is the tea party’s influence on Washington’s political elite, which looks down at the more extreme men and women of the right when they appear on Fox News but ends up carrying their water.

But I think I agree with Digby that Dionne is only half right, and the trend in the tea party’s unfavorable rating suggests that "win" may also be what does it in.

Listen to Me!

"Listen to me!" has been the tea party’s demand upon Republicans, Democrats Who Should Know Better™, and … well .. the rest of us too. Ever since the tantrum first started, that’s been their rallying cry "Listen to me!"

Well, we’ve been listening, and maybe it’s because we have been listening that the tea party’s numbers are one flush away from circling the bowl. Maybe its because the more Americans hear from the tea party, the more we realize what the tea party wants. Maybe the more we hear the more we know that the what the tea party wants isn’t what most of the rest of us want.

We’re listening, and we hear that programs like Social Security can’t exist in the America the tea party wants, as Eric Cantor explained when he said, "We’re going to have to come to grips with the fact that these programs cannot exist if we want America to be what we want America to be."

Well it’s not the America most of us want, according to poll after poll:

So, why would anybody in their right mind be talking about Social Security cuts that most Americans don’t want, and that the CBO says aren’t necessary in the middle of a recession and an unemployment crisis? Why propose budget cuts that would shut down Social Security offices, when most people want Congress to focus on jobs?

 Because the tea party is hot and heavy on the issue.

Likewise on a government shutdown. Republicans can call it a "slowdown" instead of a shutdown, and try to convince us it sounds worse than it is, but a Washington Post/ABC poll that a majority of Americans say a government shutdown would be a "bad thing," and more of us would blame the GOP instead of President Obama. A shutdown would send out many far-reaching ripples, and as Paul Waldman noted, the GOP could pay a heavy price.

If a shutdown isn’t averted, the news will be filled with stories about its consequences: shots of national parks with "Closed" signs at their gates, veterans complaining of their inability to access benefits, pictures of empty offices, and so on. The public will contrast a conciliatory President Obama willing to make some cuts to pass a budget with an intransigent GOP that wants to destroy government at any cost.

That puts Boehner and the GOP in a no-win situation. Keep dancing with the one that brung them, and risk getting tossed out of the party when most people blame you for the trouble your date causes. Or dump your date, who’s already increasingly disappointed with you, and will probably make even more trouble for you in the not-so-distant future.

Like I said earlier, it’s a choice between a psycho current girlfriend or a psycho ex-girlfriend.

…Observing the GOP/tea party relationship is like watching a codependent relationship between an antisocial personality and borderline personality, with liberal doses of both histrionic personality and paranoid personality (Glenn Beck’s latest is one example).

You never know what’s going to happen, but you can be pretty sure they’re not going to break up. They need each other, because (a) neither would have gotten this far without the other, and (b) no one else is likely to have them.

The GOP knows it’s in a dangerous situation, now that it has to govern and all. Things that were attractive in the courting stage — that unbridled passion, mixed with near obsessive devotion and manic energy — are a little troublesome when it’s time to settle down. The wild ideas that were refreshingly spontaneous ("Hey, wouldn’t it be great/hot/cool if we…?"), become the impossible demands ("If you really loved me, you would…") that could lose you the sweet gig you just landed.

…My guess is that the tea party and the GOP can’t quit each other even if sometimes they want to. The tea party knows that this relationship is about the only thing that’s likely to get them anywhere near having a shot at even symbolic power and influence. And the GOP knows that it probably wouldn’t have gotten an invite to the party if its somewhat scary significant other, however unpopular, hadn’t helped it get in.

The old question of whether its better to have some faction inside the tent pissing out, instead of outside the tent pissing in doesn’t really apply here, because the only party the tea party looks poised to spoil is the Grand Old Party’s Party. The choice here is whether its better to have a "psycho current girlfriend" than a "psycho ex-girlfriend." Either way, you’re probably gonna need stitches. And therapy.

Well, somebody get the first aid kit. It looks like the tea party may be tanking. If so it probably won’t go quietly. If not, the GOP is going to get banged up anyway. The tea party will turn on the GOP in 2012, if Republicans stray one step from its agenda. But the rest of the electorate will show both the GOP and the tea party the door in 2012, if Republicans keep following the tea party’s lead.

March 12, 2011

Issues often become symbols in the voters’ minds of whether a candidate is "on their side" or "a strong effective leader." But elections are never "about" an issue. They are about candidates.

Last year Democrats were thrown out of office because people were sick of an economy that had become worse and worse for them. As a consequence, many swing voters decided that Democrats weren’t on their side. If the economy had been roaring back from recession, they would have voted differently. Their positions on deficits, or Federal spending, would have made very little difference because they are abstractions that have no direct, palpable impact on individual voters or their families.

On the other hand if a voter becomes convinced that a candidate actually intends to take something away that they value — to cut their Social Security or Medicare benefits, for instance — they will decide in a nano-second that the candidate advocating that position is not on their side. That is particularly true because most Americans believe that they are owed their Social Security and Medicare benefits since they have paid throughout their working lives into Social Security and Medicare. Voters don’t view Social Security and Medicare just as "government programs." They view them as "insurance programs." Americans believe they deserve Social Security and Medicare benefits just as they would the benefits owed under any other insurance contract.

The GOP keeps dancing with the one they think brung them to the party, because they still think 2010 was their invitation to the party. In truth, they basically snuck in while somebody else was being tossed out, and brought the tea party in with them. If Republicans keep dancing with the one they think brung them, they just might dance right back out the door, and find themselves caught between the ticked off electorate that kicked them out and a pissed off tea party that blames them for it.

That’s the GOP’s problem between now and 2012. With a GOP majority in the House, it’s become our problem too. The difference is that in 2012, Americans can it’s not going to be our problem.

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