Picking the candidates and writing the agenda.
Go to the panels with the boring names. That’s the secret to any political conference. Flashy names are candy floss meant to tempt you into meetings that at best will tell you what you already know, and at worst will bore you mindless.
That’s the approach I take, anyway, at the 2011 Defending the American Dream Summit, the annual megaconfab put on by Americans for Prosperity. This is the Tea Party group chaired by the billionaire industrialist David Koch with a budget, at last measure, of more than $40 million. Herman Cain, Mitt Romney, and Rudy Giuliani are all here to address thousands of Tea Partiers. But the actual planning is happening in small rooms, under titles like “Property Rights in Peril.” I head inside to find AFP’s petite Oregon director, Karla Kay Edwards, clicking “Play” on a PowerPoint. We see a map of the United States with public lands marked in red.
“Dead capital is property that has no possibility of securing property rights on it,” says Edwards. “Folks, I submit to you that everything in red has no possibility of securing property rights on it.”
A few dozen Tea Party activists take it in, scribble down notes. They’re spending two days in Washington, D.C., on heavily discounted tickets. If they live close by—Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina—odds are that they took a chartered bus here with fellow Tea Partiers. They’re the vanguard of the movement, Republican precinct chairs and campaign volunteers, and they are learning that the 2012 elections won’t count for much unless victory results in a huge sell-off of public lands.
It’s easy to think that the Tea Party is on the wane. Its obituary has been written countless times in the past twelve months. And, in a couple of big, visible ways, it’s true. The large “taxpayer march on Washington” on September 12, 2009, was never matched or repeated. April 15, 2011, the third annual day of tax protests, was mostly a fluke. And the Tea Party’s punching weight in the GOP presidential primary has been hard to measure. Just as conservatives failed to decide on an alternative to John McCain, they have fumbled and staggered from candidate to candidate in a vain attempt to challenge Mitt Romney. In September, Romney appeared at a ballyhooed Tea Party Express rally in New Hampshire. I was there. The activists only outnumbered the reporters by around four to one.
But this is the wrong way to look at the Tea Party. After 2010, the movement evolved. Activists got jobs with newly elected Republicans. Political organizations like Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks grew their staffs and budgets. Elected Republicans continued to draw on them for strength, support, and warm bodies at campaign events. Think of Florida Governor Rick Scott signing his budget at a Tea Party rally instead of in the Capitol, or of Senator Jim DeMint and other conservatives holding Tea Party events to defend their hell-no stances on raising the debt ceiling.
This new, professionalized Tea Party may not have the numbers to pack the National Mall with tricorne hats, but it has proved itself spectacularly adept at two other tasks: exacting promises and submission from presidential candidates; and setting the Republican policy agenda. And in a representative government, at a time when a languishing economy and anemic voter turnout may turn the odds against Democrats, truly—what else matters?
If, as is quite possible, the Republicans gain control of both the White House and Congress, the Tea Party will have gained a hugely disproportionate amount of control over the government through the use of these two mechanisms. One of them is playing out right now in the garish arena of the primary campaign. The other has been in rehearsals for the past year in the halls of Congress. Here’s a brief description of both.
The candidate veto
T he next Republican nominee will agree with the Tea Party on every issue of substance. This won’t be true if Jon Huntsman stages a series of miracle surges in key states and grabs the nomination. Fine, sure: leave that possibility aside. If anyone else wins, he or she will have given the Tea Party most of what it wants, all during the audition stage.
Start with Mitt Romney, the presumptive front-runner who Tea Partiers are happiest to trash on the record, and a good test case for what the movement can extract from candidates before the polls open. He was cagey during the debt fight right up until June 29, when he endorsed the “Cut, Cap, and Balance” pledge. FreedomWorks, Dick Armey’s group, had endorsed the pledge on June 28. It was a radical set of promises. Developed by the conservative Republican Study Committee, endorsed immediately by big Tea Party groups, it committed the signer to reduce nondefense discretionary spending to 2008 levels, cap spending so that it falls below 20 percent of GDP by 2021, and get ratified a new version of the Balanced Budget Amendment that prohibits tax increases unless two-thirds of the Congress agrees to them.
And now, cutting and capping is Romney’s default answer to thorny debate questions about the budget.
That’s just a taste of what the Tea Party has extracted from Romney. Throughout 2011, he lagged the flavors of the various months—Trump, Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Gingrich—in the support of self-proclaimed “Tea Party voters.” The main reason: as governor, he signed a health care bill that became the model for the eventual patchwork Affordable Care Act. Fear of the Tea Party has gotten Romney to denounce his work. In the September 7 debate, he imagined his first day behind the Oval Office desk, and promised to grant “a waiver from Obamacare to all fifty states.” But that wasn’t enough. In a subsequent debate, still feeling the pressure, Romney pledged to go one better and use reconciliation to repeal “Obamacare” on day one of his administration— a long-standing Tea Party demand endorsed by many of the other Republican contenders.
With the spotlight on him from the beginning, Romney has been stuck in reactive mode. Other candidates have been more successful at getting out in front of the movement. Newt Gingrich’s actual record shouldn’t assuage a Tea Partier at all, but he endorsed the movement early, and he’s been proactive about feeding it new ideas. “Take the most bizarre of judges and simply abolish their court,” he suggested in a September interview with the Daily Caller. “Tell them to go home.” The movement ate it up. That’s been a sure way to get ahead in this campaign: out-Tea Party the Tea Party.
The negative agenda
O n November 17, a week before the budget “super committee” had to release its plan to cut the debt, FreedomWorks released a plan of its own. The Tea Party Budget was a thirty-three-page epistle of budget cuts, entitlement cuts, and repeal plans. Mike Lee and Rand Paul kicked off an ersatz “hearing.” The twelve Tea Party activists who’d served on the commission fielded questions. Members of the GOP House majority tromped in to hail the cutters as patriots. “I certainly would consider sponsoring this bill in the House of Representatives,” said Georgia Representative Paul Broun.
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