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When the Democratic party loses control of the US House of Representatives on Tuesday night, as all polls suggest it will, its defeat will revive one of the most heated criticisms levelled at Barack Obama during the 2008 election campaign. Then Hillary Clinton, his challenger for the Democratic presidential nomination, tore into him for his disdainful tone towards working-class economic anxiety and, in his words, those who “get bitter and cling to guns or religion”. Sadly for Mr Obama this same anxious rebellion has powered victorious Tea Party candidates, who now could harry him for his remaining time in office.
Echoes of the president’s words have been heard in current liberal criticisms of Tea Party activists, who have been dubbed rubes, racists, and religious nuts. Others say they represent a fading remnant of the bastions of white male privilege. But the polls do not support such claims. While Democratic voters do tell pollsters the views of Tea Partiers are too extreme, many independents and most Republicans disagree; that is why Mr Obama is headed for defeat this week.
Indeed, the Tea Party is now likely to exert a growing and powerful influence on the Republican party and its candidates, as it weighs in on important battles in Congress and on who should run in the 2012 presidential and senatorial races. It has had a big impact in this election, but is also a powerful new populist force whose influence could be felt for a long time.
It is precisely because the Tea Party has so much in common with the politics of middle America that it will not disappear after election day. Recent polls of Tea Partiers show a consistent portrait. About six in 10 are male and a majority has middle to upper-middle-class household incomes. They are about 90 per cent white. In fact, they look very much like the supporters who twice flocked to third-party presidential candidate Ross Perot during the 1990s.
Mr Perot’s supporters were disproportionately male, white, upper middle income and college-trained. Like the Tea Partiers, they were deeply dissatisfied with the direction of America, their president and government in general. There were enough of them for Mr Perot to win an impressive 19 per cent of the vote in 1992.
There are differences, of course. Mr Perot won supporters across America, but was especially strong in the west. Tea Party supporters are also found in all regions, but particularly in the south. Are there racists lurking in these heavily southern ranks? The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People thinks so, passing a resolution in July condemning “racist elements” in the movement. But a statistical analysis by ABC pollsters shows that views about race are “not significant predictors of support for the Tea Party”.
Later this week, when Mr Obama thinks about how to recover from defeat, he should note that while Tea Partiers are social conservatives, social issues were not motivating them at this election. Yes, they tend to think abortion should be illegal, and few support gay marriage. But polls show it is concerns about federal spending and the size of government that really drives them–making it reasonable to see the movement as a middle-American response to the president’s economic agenda.
Strong performances by Tea Party candidates on Tuesday do not guarantee the movement’s staying power. But most Tea Party activists are idealistic political newcomers, a plus for any movement. These are people who got their political start the old-fashioned way: knocking on doors. They have made this midterm election a national referendum on the performance of Mr Obama’s administration. Pretty good for a bunch of amateurs–and, of course, one of their possible presidential aspirants, Sarah Palin.
That said, Mr Obama has some room for optimism–even with the political winds blowing strongly against the Democrats this autumn. The Tea Party will be a sizeable pressure group in the new Congress, and pull the Grand Old Party to the right. Yet while most Tea Party supporters are Republicans, 40 per cent are independents, and some are even Democrats. Tea Partiers favour Republican candidates, but aren’t marching in lock step with their party. Indeed, this is a movement already putting the fear of God into moderate Republicans running for re-election in two years.
If he is clever, Mr Obama could exploit these differences, especially as the Tea Party seems bent on changing the GOP from the inside. Despite pessimism about the economy, most voters remain optimistic about Mr Obama’s prospects, and he leads all Republican challengers in polls for 2012. Americans still want him to succeed. The wake-up call the Tea Partiers provided on issues concerning millions of Americans, combined with a GOP victory on Tuesday, could even reinvigorate the White House, if the president decides to listen.
Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.
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