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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Heart of the Republican Dilemma

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on April 15, 2010.
Ah, another Tax Day, another Tea Party poll! This one, from CBS/New York Times, is probably the most extensive we’ve seen. But the findings are only surprising to people who haven’t been paying close attention to the Tea Party Movement.
Tea Partiers are, in almost every significant respect, overwhelmingly conservative Republicans. Two-thirds say they always or usually vote Republican. Two-thirds are regular Fox viewers. 57% have a favorable view of George W. Bush, and tea partiers, unlike their fellow-citizens, almost entirely absolve the Bush administration from responsibility for either the economic situation or current budget deficits. Over 90% of them disapprove of Barack Obama’s job performance in every area they were asked about, and in another sharp difference from everyone else, 84% disapprove of him personally. 92% think Obama’s moving the country “in the direction of socialism.” Nearly a third think he was born in another country. Three-fourths think government aid to poor people keeps the poor instead of helping them. Over half think too much has been made of the problems facing black people. Well over half think the Obama administration has favored the poor over the rich and the middle class (only 15% of Americans generally feel that way).
Interestingly, tea partiers are less likely than the public as a whole to think we need a third political party. That shouldn’t be surprising in a cohort that basically thinks the Bush administration was hunky-dory, but you’d never guess it from all the talk about the “threat” of a Tea Party-based third party.
So these are basically older (32% are retired) white conservative Republicans whose main goal, they overwhelmingly say, is to “reduce government.” But two-thirds think Social Security and Medicare are a good bargain for the country. And they certainly won’t support higher taxes.
Here’s a revealing glimpse into the older-white-conservative psychology from the Times write-up of the poll:

[N]early three-quarters of those who favor smaller government said they would prefer it even if it meant spending on domestic programs would be cut.
But in follow-up interviews, Tea Party supporters said they did not want to cut Medicare or Social Security — the biggest domestic programs, suggesting instead a focus on “waste.”
Some defended being on Social Security while fighting big government by saying that since they had paid into the system, they deserved the benefits.
Others could not explain the contradiction.
“That’s a conundrum, isn’t it?” asked Jodine White, 62, of Rocklin, Calif. “I don’t know what to say. Maybe I don’t want smaller government. I guess I want smaller government and my Social Security.” She added, “I didn’t look at it from the perspective of losing things I need. I think I’ve changed my mind.”

And that’s the conundrum facing the Republican Party going forward. Having created a fiscal time bomb during the Bush administration, they are now born-again deficit hawks, and moreover, profess to think today’s federal government represents a socialist tyranny. But they are even more adamantly opposed to higher taxes, and their base doesn’t want them to touch “their” Social Security and Medicare, which they figure they’ve earned.
Barring a major retraction of America’s active role in the world, which would enable big reductions in defense spending (and we know few conservative Republicans favor that), the only thing left to do is the sort of wholesale elimination of federal functions last attempted by Republicans in 1995, which failed miserably, or an all-out attack on means-tested programs benefitting the poor. By all evidence, this last approach may please many Tea Partiers, but justice and efficacy aside, there is no approach more guaranteed to ensure that the Republican Party’s base gets even older and whiter than it already is.
At some point, the famous “anger” of the Tea Partiers will have to be propitiated by GOP leaders, but there’s no obvious way out of the dilemma Republicans have created for themselves.

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