The tea party’s popularity problem
It’s not been an easy month for the tea party. Take the GOP primary: they’re losing it. “The Tea Party movement was fueled by opposition to the Wall Street bailouts, President Obama’s health care reform legislation and out-of-control spending in Washington,” writes Phil Klein at the conservative Washington Examiner. “Yet the current favorite to win the Republican nomination has rejected the Tea Party line on all of these issues.”
The movement is also losing some big votes. Only 24 percent of tea party members support free trade agreements, and their opposition to the pacts, according to a year-old NBC/Wall Street Journal poll (pdf), is actually much stronger than that of other voters. But three of them passed yesterday even as Speaker John Boehner refuses to give populist legislation to rap China on the knuckles a vote. As Dana Milbank notes, “for all the talk of populist foment – the tea party on the right and the new Occupy Wall Street movement on the left – business interests remain firmly in control.”
And Senate Democrats are taking pretty direct aim at the tea party. In a meeting with reporters yesterday, Sen. Chuck Schumer, who runs messaging for the Senate Dems, previewed the coming campaign. “We are going to be labeling tea party economics. Tea party double-dip recession. Tea party gridlock,” he said. “We think that’s going to have a real effect.” Why would it have a real effect? Because, he continued, the tea party is very, very unpopular.
I’m skeptical that saying the words “tea party” a lot will really do the Democrats much good in the polls. But Schumer is right about one thing: The tea party is really, really unpopular. One of the least popular political forces in American life, actually. Dave Weigel notes that the latest Time magazine poll found that only 27 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the tea party, while 54 percent approve of Occupy Wall Street. Ouch. But it’s par for the course. The tea party posts lower favorability numbers than President Obama (44 percent), the Democratic Party (44 percent) or the Republican Party (39 percent).
And I imagine that’s one reason the tea party isn’t proving more effective in the Republican Primary. The Republican Party establishment, which wants to win elections, has made a point of kneecapping tea party candidates like Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and to some degree, even Rick Perry. You can see the same process beginning now against Herman Cain. Similarly, if the Republican leadership thought a tea party-populism was a smart political strategy, they would be moving more forcefully to implement it.
Which isn’t to say the tea party is unimportant in American politics. Its leverage has always come from its ability to influence internal Republican Party politics, mostly through a ruthless strategy of primarying insufficiently obedient politicians. But the closer the Republican Party gets to the general election, and the more they’re focused on beating Obama than saving their own skins, the more they’re likely to do to distance themselves from the tea party’s increasingly toxic branding.