Tea party influence remains despite Indiana losses

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Wednesday, May 5, 2010; 4:52 PM

The losses in Indiana's Republican primary Tuesday by two Senate candidates who had associated themselves with the "tea party" was an electoral defeat for the emerging political movement.

But, make no mistake, the movement's influence remains great -- and enduring -- despite the victory of Dan Coats over Marlin Stutzman and John Hostetter. Under pressure from conservatives allied with it, Republicans in Congress have changed their behavior and tactics in ways that will resound not only in this election cycle, but for 2011 and 2012 as well.

Here's a look at four ways the GOP's approach has been influenced by the loose coalition of activists that includes Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), talk show host Glenn Beck and groups such as Freedomworks.

1. No moderating policy views

After the 2008 elections, there was debate inside the GOP about moderating its positions on some key issues to win more elections in the future. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R) said in early 2009 the GOP needed to offer its own universal health-care plan, ahead of the Democrats. Steve Schmidt, who was the top strategist for Arizona Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign, called for the party to abandon its opposition to same-sex marriage to win swing voters. Other Republicans, such as Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, said it was important for the GOP not to be seen only as a party that opposed things.

None of those changes has happened. The Republicans of 2010 are as conservative, if not more so, than in 2006 or 2008. And the tea party activists helped push the party in that direction.

Last August, for instance, House Republicans were openly discussing the idea of advancing a conservative version of universal health care. But the tea party protests that month persuaded them to abandon the idea of their own big health-care plan, since conservatives were more angry about the Obama plan than they were eager to read a comprehensive GOP alternative.

Looking forward to this fall's elections, congressional Republicans are likely to pursue an agenda combining the goals of members on Capitol Hill and conservative activists outside, include a ban on earmarks, a campaign to repeal the health-care law and pledges of greater transparency in Congress.

This approach has risks; for example, polls show wide support for some of the provisions in the health-care law that many Republicans want to repeal. And while voters are also frustrated with congressional Democrats, many blame Republicans for today's sharp partisan divide.

2. A different kind of rhetoric

Republicans now regularly invoke the Constitution to defend their views. A group of House lawmakers on Thursday will launch a 10th Amendment Task Force, emphasizing the virtues of the constitutional provision that says rights not specifically given to the federal government are reserved for states and ultimately individuals.

This is not an accident. The tea party activists and hosts like Glenn Beck emphasized throughout last year that the health-care overhaul was not only unwise, but unconstitutional because it requires people to purchase health insurance.

That argument later became popular among Republican lawmakers, and some states promise to challenge it on those grounds. Another cause that animates the tea party activists, looking to more closely scrutinize the Federal Reserve, has also gained a groundswell of support among Republicans.

3. Higher profiles for conservative leaders

Lawmakers, particularly those in leadership, constantly jockey to appear on major Sunday news shows. On March 28, a Republican who appeared on CBS's "Face the Nation" had no role in passing major legislation, was not in the party's leadership and had served only three terms in the House. But the embrace by the tea party movement has turned Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) into one of the party's leading figures, so influential she was the most-cheered speaker at several rallies on Capitol Hill opposing the health-care law.

She is now one of the party's most visible faces on television, even as party officials privately worry about her often overheated rhetoric.

DeMint and Florida Senate candidate Marco Rubio are other figures whom party activists have helped turn into heroes.

4. An obsession with congressional process

Much of the tea party anger has been targeted not simply at Democrats, but at how Washington conducts business. Republicans are trying to seize on that, proposing for an earmark ban, a requirement on all bills be online 72 hours before any vote, and posting with 48 hours the committee votes of members on key issues.

It's unclear if voters outside of tea party activists care about these initiatives at a time of high unemployment and other major issues. But the embrace of such transparency initiatives will affect the conduct of Congress if Republicans regain control of the House or the Senate after this year's elections.

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