Reading the tea leaves

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 6, 2010; 9:46 AM

The tea party movement -- if that angry, inchoate mass of disaffected dissidents deserves to be called a movement -- was probably the most surprising development of last year, and the most underestimated by the MSM.

It wasn't just that lots of folks turned out for protests, but that the demonstrators were fueled by considerable emotion -- which surfaced again amid the shouting of the summer's health-care town halls.

Even today, I can't tell you exactly what the tea partiers stand for, since the shorthand label covers all sorts of people with all kinds of grievances.

Most of them seem to me to be fiercely anti-Obama and anti-Democratic Party. They denounce big government, although they barely piped up when George W. Bush turned into a runaway spender. They throw around the word "socialism" a lot.

Their rhetoric is of the pox-on-both-parties variety, but they have clearly found a sympathetic hearing among some Republicans and Fox News commentators. So the tea types can either blossom into a Perotista-style third-party movement or be subsumed to some degree by the GOP.

The problem for the GOP, then, is whether its already tarnished brand could be further diminished by fringe elements among the protesters, who call the president a Muslim or liken him to Hitler. That's the thing about far-flung movements: not much message discipline.

But with two wars, a continuing terror threat, huge federal deficits and a major health-care overhaul in the works, there is no shortage of disaffection out there. And that could prove to be political dynamite.

The latest to taste the tea is NYT columnist David Brooks:

"The tea party movement is a large, fractious confederation of Americans who are defined by what they are against. They are against the concentrated power of the educated class. They believe big government, big business, big media and the affluent professionals are merging to form self-serving oligarchy -- with bloated government, unsustainable deficits, high taxes and intrusive regulation.

"The tea party movement is mostly famous for its flamboyant fringe. But it is now more popular than either major party. According to the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 41 percent of Americans have a positive view of the tea party movement. Only 35 percent of Americans have a positive view of the Democrats and only 28 percent have a positive view of the Republican Party. . . .

"Moreover, the tea party movement has passion. Think back on the recent decades of American history -- the way the hippies defined the 1960s; the feminists, the 1970s; the Christian conservatives, the 1980s. American history is often driven by passionate outsiders who force themselves into the center of American life.

"In the near term, the tea party tendency will dominate the Republican Party. It could be the ruin of the party, pulling it in an angry direction that suburban voters will not tolerate. But don't underestimate the deep reservoirs of public disgust."

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