The misappropriation of the tea party label (and the headaches it’s causing)

at 01:42 PM ET, 03/17/2011

In the final days of the 2010 election, every Republican was a tea partier.

What began as an insurgent movement within Republican primaries became a party-wide phenomenon, with the label of “tea party candidate” being applied to all manner of Republicans -- from the small-time grassroots candidates who initially defined the tea party to longtime incumbents who had their own (convenient) tea party revelations.

In the end, though, we’re finding that the term was too often foisted upon candidates and incumbents who were not (and are not) of the movement.

And some of these people are now finding the “tea party” label to be a double-edged sword.

Freshman Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), for example, won a primary in which he was often described as the “tea party candidate.” And, he seemed to fit the bill; Grimm was endorsed by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin (R) and spent plenty of time cultivating the Staten Island Tea Party.

But this week, with the budget battle raging in Washington, Grimm took aim at the very same tea party that supposedly spurred him to victory.

“I know that there is some opposition to working with Senate Democrats from the extreme right of the tea party who would rather see a government shutdown than pass a short-term solution,” Grimm said in a statement.

Pretty strong stuff – especially for a guy who was supposed to be a tea partier.

In fairness, toward the end of the general election, Grimm declined to define himself as a “tea party candidate.” But the Grimm situation is illustrative of the broader misappropriation of the tea party label during the 2010 election.

The question during the election, often asked in this newsroom and (we would presume) others, was, in what situation is the tea party label appropriate?

If a candidate is endorsed by a local tea party group, does that make him or her a “tea party candidate?”

Just because someone is challenging an establishment or more well-known candidate, does that make them a “tea party candidate?”

And do reporters wait for a candidate to define themselves as a “tea party candidate,” or can we make that judgment on our own based on their public statements and stances?

The answers to these questions were all too often muddled in the hectic runup to the 2010 midterms. In the end, it became pretty easy to apply the label to all kinds of Republicans who didn’t necessarily fit the bill.

Of course, few of those mislabeled Republicans were calling and asking for corrections when journalists defined them as tea partiers. In fact, they often did the opposite — aligning themselves with the grassroots movement when given the chance. Even House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) recently stated that he “should be” considered a member of the tea party.

But like Grimm, Boehner and the Republican conference are finding the tea party isn’t always their friend. It’s inherently a movement separate from the establishment — it was formed in opposition to the political establishement — and has little patience for the slow pace of Congress.

Tea party activists are increasingly disillusioned with the lengthy budget process and, in many cases, don’t see the Republican Party going far enough with its cuts.

Freshman Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.), a heretofore “tea party candidate,” is getting picketed by the tea party. Even House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has not been immune.

And today, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) said on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show that he expects Boehner and Cantor to reprimand tea party critics.

“I have no doubt that Speaker John Boehner and Republican Leader Eric Cantor and the rest of our leadership will privately, and if needs be publicly, denounce any effort to essentially badmouth the intentions of Republicans that are simply fighting for fiscal responsibility,” Pence said.

The battle between the tea party and the Republican Party has officially reached a simmer.

Put plainly, Republicans want the tea party on their side, but they don’t want to be pigeonholed either, for fear of losing the ideological middle that tends to decide presidential elections. (Perhaps that’s why membership in the House Tea Party Caucus has been so limited.)

They recognize the amorphous movement that helped them to victory in 2010 is relatively unwieldy and difficult to control. It could just as easily turn on them – as it is doing to a limited extent already — as help them electorally.

Dancing with the tea party in the coming months will be tough for Republicans, especially given that they will have to work with a Democratic majority in the Senate and a Democratic president.

And for the many Republicans who were defined as “tea party candidates” last year, they are going to have to make some tough choices about whether they want to actually earn that label.

 
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