Is The Tea Party Over Maybe

Terrance Heath

It’s always struck me as odd that the media could portray the tea party as a “grassroots movement.” From its corporate origins on CNBC to its corporate PR backing and its even more corporate agenda, not much about it has ever seemed grassroots to me. Odder still was the portrayal of the tea party as a history-based movement, when its political icons don’t understand the history of the original Tea Party or the history it wants to appropriate..

But nothing has been stranger to me than the portrayal of the tea party as a popular popular with whom? Poll after poll has shown that the tea party agenda is incredibly unpopular with the majority of Americans. Recent surveys show that the tea party movement itself is deeply unpopular.

How unpopular? Unpopular enough that the even “much maligned” groups like atheists and Muslims are more popular than the tea party. I’ve gotta hand it to them. Frankly, I’m inclined to think I’ve got far less to fear from atheists than the tea party, but in this country it takes work to be more unpopular than atheists. So it’s no surprise that the tea party’s “unfavorables” are at an all time high.

Broken Tea Pot

It’s hard out there for a tea partier.

The upstart conservative movement was all the rage in the summer of 2009, and channeled that energy into a wave of victories in the 2010 midterm elections, sending dozens of hard-line, intransigent Republicans to Congress. However, a new CNN/ORC poll (PDF) out Tuesday shows that the pendulum of public opinion has swung away from the tea party.

Just 28 percent of Americans hold favorable views of the tea party, an all-time low in the 19 months that CNN/ORC pollsters have gauged Americans’ feelings about the movement. At the same time, 53 percent of Americans think poorly of the tea party, an all-time high. According to CNN/ORC, the movement’s popularity peaked in the spring of 2010, when 38 percent of Americans said they liked the tea party and only 36 percent said they didn’t.

The burning question is: Why? Why has the tea party become so unpopular? (Not that it was all that popular, since at its peak only about 38% of Americans said they actually “liked” the tea party.)The answer to that question may be discerned from the answer to another question: When? When did the tea party’s “popularity” nosedive. The Mother Jones piece linked above points to Pew Center polls showing an 18 point drop in the tea party’s “popularity” from February 2010 to August 2011? It’s interesting, especially considering that the tea party caucus has GOP leadership by the shorthairs and has no intention of letting go, that since Republicans’ tea party-fueled return to power in the House, the movement has (a) become more well known (as one commenter said of the Pew Center poll results) and (b) more unpopular.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that the same phenomenon that led to the Democrats’ “shellacking” in 2010 may be turning the GOP’s 2010 win in to the pyrrhic victory I predicted it would be last November.

Not to pick on Kathleen Parker, but the “narrative” she suggested the Democrats take from midterm elections — “You can’t sell people what they don’t want” — is more likely to end up being the narrative the Republicans take from 2012 — if the president and the Democrats do what they need to do. Karl Rove was half-right when he said voters didn’t toss out the Democrats because are “enraptured with the GOP.” People are angry sure, but the numbers tell a different story.

People are angry not at what the Democrats did after 2008, but what they didn’t do. They didn’t “buy” what the GOP was selling. Like a shopper who ordered one thing and got another, American voters ordered transformative change in 2008 but got the same old transactional politics instead. The midterms of 2010 is their letter or complaint.

Americans have been waiting a long time for someone in Washington to come up with a plan to deliver a real recovery to middle- and working-class Americans, their families, and communities. I’ve said before that Democrats didn’t’ deliver it after 2008. Well, not only did the GOP not deliver after 2010, but as a matter of policy blocked prevented any attempt to do so. Instead, driven by an uncompromising tea party faction, Republicans made America’s economic predicament worse by nearly pushing the government to the point of shutting down and defaulting on the nation’s debts.

Even House Majority Leader Eric Cantor ‘fessed, after the President Obama presented his jobs plan, that the GOP has been “about cuts over jobs” for the past eight months, and for the last eight months Americans have been asking both parties “Where are the jobs?”

Republicans can’t claim that that they failed on jobs because of obstruction by Democrats. Republicans have gotten their way more often then not, and Americans are still waiting on the hiring surge that the GOP/tea party victory was supposed to bring. Instead, we’ve gotten job-killing cuts that put the axe to hundreds of thousands of jobs. Instead we’ve gotten renewed attacks on Planned Parenthood, the Postal Service, and NPR.  We’ve gotten bizarre new attacks on manatees.

On jobs, instead of “cut & grow” we’ve gotten the same “cut & gut” agenda — cut taxes and gut regulations — that have yet to result in job creation or economic growth, and instead resulted in a “lost decade” for American workers. Republicans have even tried to sell defending an anti-marriage equality law and allowing more snakes on planes as job creation plans.

All that may fly with tea partiers who blame same-sex marriage for our economic crisis, but it won’t fly with Americans who’ve been waiting far too long for our elected leaders to act — like the constituents who confronted Boehner over his party’s failure to create jobs, or the constituents who confronted other GOP representatives other their party’s whole agenda after 2010.

No wonder a majority of Americans blame Republicans for ineffective government in the face of an economic crisis and chronic unemployment. No wonder a majority of Americans black Republicans for the state of the economy. No wonder Republicans wanted Democrats to “stop talking about jobs.”

Now, finally, the president and Democrats are talking about jobs, and promoting a plan that’s more substantive than and does more to actually create jobs than anything the tea party has allowed the Republican party to present.

President Obama seems not only to have caught on to a winning message, but is taking that message to the GOP’s home turf and posing a an important question, and a pressing question to everyone but the GOP/tea party:

This bill is not that complicated: it’s a bill that would put people back to work rebuilding America. […] There is work to be done, and workers ready to do it. So let’s tell Congress to pass this jobs bill right away. [Crowd: “Pass the bill!”]

What is Congress waiting for? Why is it taking so long? Now, the bridge behind us just happens to connect the state that’s home to to the Speaker of the House with the home state the Republican leader in the Senate.

Now that’s just a coincidence. It’s purely accidental that that happened. (Laughs)

But part of the reason I came here is that Mr. Boehner and Mr. McConnell, those are the two most powerful Republicans in government. They can either kill this jobs bill or they can help pass this jobs bill. […] There’s no reason for Republicans in Congress to stand in the way of more construction projects. There’s no reason to stand in the way of more jobs.

Mr. Boehner. Mr. McConnell. Help us rebuild this bridge! Help us rebuild America! Help us put construction workers back to work! Pass this bill!

The president is out there with a popular message and a popular plan (popular even with Republicans). And even in at a time when voters aren’t crazy about either party, Obama’s (and the Democrats’) approval ratings are still higher than the Republicans’, and he’s currently polling better than every GOP presidential candidate so far.

So much for “class warfare.” But does any of this mean the tea party is over?

That depends.

Election day is a long way off, and anything can happen between now and then. Right now one party has a popular message, a compelling vision and a plan to turn both into action to turn the economy around, and the other side … well … doesn’t. It may be too soon to declare the tea party “over.” But if the president and his party stay their current course, and Republicans stick to their script, it maybe — sooner rather than later.

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