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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

One More Time: The Tea Party Is the Republican Right

Back in March, I recapitulated the overwhelming evidence that the Tea Party Movement, for all the hype treating it as a new or as an independent phenomenon, was actually just a radicalized subset (a large subset, to be sure) of the conservative GOP base.
Apparently the venerable Gallup organization has gotten tired of hearing the same hype, because now it’s releasing an analysis of data collected for several months showing, in its understated way of saying it, that “Tea Party Supporters Overlap Republican Base.”
By just about any measurement you care to use, the two voter segments do indeed “overlap,” with the attitudes of the Tea Party Folk and those of self-identified “conservative Republicans” differing very little, perhaps because they are largely the same people.
Here’s how Gallup puts it:

The Tea Party movement has received considerable news coverage this year, in large part because it appears to represent a new and potentially powerful force on the American political scene. Whether Tea Party supporters are a voting segment that is unique and distinct from the more traditional Republican conservative base, however, appears questionable. There is significant overlap between Tea Party supporters and conservative Republicans, both groups are highly enthusiastic about voting, and both are heavily skewed toward Republican candidates — although the latter somewhat more so than the former.
Republican leaders who worry about the Tea Party’s impact on their races may in fact (and more simply) be defined as largely worrying about their party’s core base. Additionally, GOP leaders eager to maximize turnout this fall may do just as well by targeting the more traditional voting category of conservative Republicans as by expending energy and effort to target those who identify with the Tea Party movement.

So how does one explain this persistent misapprehension of the Tea Party as something entirely new under the sun? I think there are three factors:
(1) Tea Party types are constantly proclaiming their independence, for the simple reason that it increases their leverage over the GOP and also encourages media coverage of the phenomenon.
(2) The Tea Party Movement does indeed have a radical rhetoric that sounds new, though it’s reasonably clear that this simply reflects a radicalization of the Republican Right because of the “betrayals” of the conservative cause it perceives in the “GOP establishment,” and because of the trauma inflicted by recent Democratic victories and also by the economic meltdown and the disappointments associated with Bush-era military crusades in the Middle East.
(3) Many observers do not seem aware of the long history of movement-conservative hostility to the “Republican establishment,” which stretches back to its very beginnings, and indeed, beyond that, if you consider the ancient hostility of heartland “Taft Republicans” to the GOP’s “Eastern Seaboard Establishment,” which predated World War II. To put it another way, many non-conservatives think of the conquest of the Republican Party by the conservative movement as being a long-accomplished fact, dating back to 1994 or even to Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. But to movement conservatives, the struggle is an ongoing effort that will not be complete until every “RINO,” defined ever-more-expansively as anyone resisting the latest conservative line, is driven out of the party or cowed into silence.
The bottom line is that no one should be fooled into thinking that by putting on revolutionary war garb or brandishing well-thumbed copies of the Constitution, conservative activists have changed their basic attitudes or found a large number of new adherents. They’ve always been willing, periodically, to pressure the GOP with threats to stay at home on election day or even occasionally vote for a Democrat; it’s no accident that one of the spiritual fathers of the conservative movement and the Tea Party Movement, direct-mail pioneer Richard Viguerie, celebrated the prospect of a Republican defeat in 2006 in hopes that the party would turn decisively to the right in the wake of voter repudiation. And that’s precisely what it’s done.

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