Will the Tea Party help or hurt Obama?

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Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Post asked political experts whether the Tea Party will help or hurt President Obama. Below are responses from Robert Shrum, Ed Rogers, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Dan Schnur and Donna Brazile.

ROBERT SHRUM

Democratic strategist and senior fellow at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service

The Tea Party will prove to be the best thing that's happened to Barack Obama and the Democrats since, well, Sarah Palin, the media-hyped 2008 vice presidential nominee who turned out to be a bursting bubble, not a lasting bounce, for the McCain campaign. It's fitting that Palin is now the godmother of a movement that has captured the GOP instead of being captured by it. A series of tea-steeped intra-party fratricides has produced unwanted and unabashedly extreme candidates who will kill the Republicans' best hopes for 2010. Democrats will now lose fewer seats; they'll keep the Senate -- and just maybe even the House. The president won't have to struggle with the harshest consequences of a wholesale hostile takeover in Congress.

But that's only a down payment on the tea dividend for Democrats. The big dividend will come in 2012. Mitt Romney, the best candidate to challenge Obama if the recovery lags, is guilty of a heresy the Tea Party dogmatists won't abide: He cooperated with Ted Kennedy to pass health reform in Massachusetts. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, the other favorite of party pros, pronounced the self-evident truth that true believers dare not speak -- tax increases may be necessary. That leaves the unelectables -- Palin, former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, the longtime uber-lobbyist who would be president at a time of deep hostility toward Washington insiders. But for the Tea Party battalions who will dominate the 2012 primaries and caucuses, he may pass muster as uber-conservative on the hot-button issues.

As they have just shown so conspicuously in Delaware, these purists don't care about electability. They may sift through other potential nominees, but their political strainer is finely meshed, and whoever prevails will be pushed far to the right.

ED ROGERS

Chairman of BGR Group; White House staffer to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush

The Democrats and some of their media elite allies seem to believe that the Tea Party's rise has diminished Republican prospects in the midterm elections this fall. In fact, the Tea Party is a big problem for President Obama and his party this year and probably through 2012.

Think of the Tea Partyers as the tip of an iceberg. The visible part. The one we see on cable news channels is only the thin, visible slice of the opposition. The much larger, submerged part is the roughly two-thirds of the electorate who think America is headed in the wrong direction, disapprove of Congress and believe the president is handling the economy poorly. The Democrats are about to hit the whole iceberg.

After the November elections, however, many Republican leaders will be intimidated by the Tea Party's success and will worry about the challenge its candidates could present in the Republican primaries in 2012. The result: GOP elected officials will not want to be accused of compromising with Obama on anything. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) got religion and saved himself; Gov. Charlie Crist (I-Fla.) got run out of the party; and Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) and Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) had their careers abruptly ended.

Obama, in turn, will have to pander to his base, making governing all but impossible. This will further enrage the Tea Party and discourage critical swing voters. Since they will still hold the White House after November and can be blamed for gridlock, the Democrats have more of a long-term problem than they would like to admit.

KATHLEEN KENNEDY TOWNSEND

Lieutenant governor of Maryland from 1995 to 2003

President Obama can take solace from the fact that even Karl Rove complains about Delaware's Tea Party candidate. The colorful nuttiness of those whom that party has nominated changes the midterm elections from a straight referendum on a president presiding over a near-10 percent unemployment rate to a Rorschach test on who we are and who speaks for us. Do we want a senator who checks the bushes for hidden enemies or who proposes that Social Security be dismantled? Even tough economic times will not distort our fundamental values. The Tea Party looks for an enemy, and it is itself.

So the Tea Party may help the president not only in this election but, most interestingly, with policy. By constantly raising the issue of the long-term deficit, it is forcing a discussion on how we pay for programs such as Social Security and Medicare, which take up a large part of the federal budget. During the Bush years, these questions went unanswered. A drug benefit was given without paying for it. In fact, taxes were cut, creating a $1.3 trillion hole.

Because the true believers in the Tea Party say that they would eliminate Social Security and Medicare to shrink government spending, the president's proposals will seem reasonable by contrast. It is hard for a president to change policy without a clear understanding of the trade-offs involved -- cutting benefits, raising taxes, upping the retirement age and so forth. The Tea Party will provide the president precisely the opening he needs.

DAN SCHNUR

Director of the University of Southern California's Unruh Institute of Politics; communications director for John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign

The majority party in a bad economy needs to make this campaign into a choice, which requires a foil.

Two years later, vilifying George W. Bush now draws diminishing returns for Democratic candidates. Simultaneously promoting and demonizing John Boehner will be difficult, as Republicans who tried to do that with another House minority leader in 2006 will tell you. Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh are too far from levers of government to make credible targets. The Tea Party might help with this, but only a bit. While the national reputation of the Tea Party movement does not appear to strongly affect swing voters in one direction or another, and while the broader political and economic trends work strongly against the party in power, the individual eccentricities of insurgent Republican candidates could provide opportunities for the Democrats pick off a few seats here and there.

The core tenet of the Obama campaign message in 2008 was that change was something to hope for. Two years later, intensified by the influx of Tea Party candidates into the general election cycle, the president's allies now argue that change is something to fear. The logical underpinnings of that messaging adjustment makes perfect sense (changing the good change is bad change, or something like that). But along with the vulnerabilities that some Republican nominees bring to the table, they also bring an immeasurable amount of grass-roots and populist energy, the kind that Candidate Obama leveraged so effectively, and for which President Obama still searches. Until the Democrats can find a way to approximate the motivation that their base provided two years ago, the next several weeks will still be a decidedly uphill struggle.

DONNA BRAZILE

Manager of Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign; author and political commentator

The good news is that the Tea Party Republicans are taking over the Republican Party. The bad news is that the Tea Party Republicans are taking over the Republican Party. The party of Eisenhower and Reagan is moribund, usurped by the party of Tea Partyers shouting loudly for something, or perhaps nothing at all.

Polls show that 50 percent of Americans have no opinion of the Tea Party. That provides an opportunity for President Obama to accurately define it. Now, newspapers nearly always describe the Tea Party movement as being for "small government and fiscal rectitude."

But nearly all Americans adhere to a basic belief in smaller government and responsible spending. That includes the president. He has positive ideas for job creation, plus a plan to govern. The Republican establishment, according to several Republicans, has no plans beyond getting elected. Meanwhile, the Tea Party's plan is to dismantle the government, making the contrast even starker.

The Tea Party has made Democrats the lesser of two evils, swinging the door wide open for them to preserve their majority.


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