The Democrats are weeks away from a midterm thumping that wasn’t supposed to happen, and the liberal mind is desperate for a narrative, a storyline, something to ease the pain of losing to a ragtag band of right-wing populists. Something that explains the Tea Parties — and then explains them away.Well, there are a couple of ways to think about this.
In one sense, Douthat is almost certainly right about some part of the liberal reaction. No one loses an election and immediately concludes: the people were right, and I was wrong. Much more likely are claims that the other side cheated (either literally, as in recent conservative claims about ACORN or, in 1996, foreign money); claims that the other side were unprincipled, ruthless, demagogues (heard quite a bit in 1992 and 2008); or claims that our side mishandled the whole thing, and if they had only listened to me and been more conservative or less conservative or run just the right ads or used this line in the debate or embraced this issue or tactically retreated on that issue then things would have been different. I'm using GOP examples of losses just to remind everyone that these are universal reactions to losses, and I've seen all of them so far as the Democrats prepare to respond to their losses in November. So fair enough. There certainly are Dems, for example, who are writing off their losses as proof that the American people are just too stupid/racist/whatever for good government, and it's fair to call them on that.
On the other hand, another thing that goes on is an honest attempt to understand what Tea Partyism is all about -- not to dismiss it, but to figure out what it is and what it isn't. Count me firmly on Drum's side of this: Tea Partyism is simply a manifestation of how large numbers of conservatives react to the fact of a liberal Democrat in the White House. That doesn't mean that they are not real people (indeed, that's true regardless of how much funding or organizational support they get from large conservative donors). It doesn't mean that their concerns are not real, or that they are not a significant political force. Explaining something doesn't mean explaining it away.
Now, Douthat wants people to believe that Tea Party activists are driven not by a Democrat in the White House, but by issue idealism around the issues of "bailouts, deficits and spending." Is that true? Well, first of all, without far more survey data than we have, I think any such interpretation gets awful close to what Henry Farrell calls "Me, the People" thinking. There are a lot of Tea Party groups, and collectively they have a lot of issue positions, and it's very tempting to select those that the pundit wants to embrace.
Indeed, Douthat conveniently leaves out taxes from that issue grouping -- recall that "Tea" Party at least sometimes has stood for "Taxed Enough Already." This suggests that "deficits" cannot be taken literally as a Tea Party concern. Indeed, it's pretty clear that if Tea Party preferences were enacted, deficits would soar, just as they did under George W. Bush. I'd also say that Tea Party candidates -- and yes, that's an even trickier group to define, but still -- are hardly shy or moderate about social issues.
Now, I disagree with Drum's response, in which he makes the case that conservatives (Tea Party or otherwise) don't care about spending. I don't think it's convincing. Yes, spending increased under Bush, but outside of defense spending, conservatives in Congress were almost certainly willing to slash spending, including spending on entitlements; a lot of conservatives opposed Medicare expansion, which is why it was such a difficult vote in the first place. (Note that even there it wasn't deficits that bothered reluctant or rebellious conservatives; if I recall correctly, no one on the right proposed passing expanded benefits but only if they were paid for somehow). I especially dislike arguments in the form of "it didn't pass, so therefore they must not really have wanted it." I think liberal Democrats in 2009-2010 genuinely wanted a climate/energy bill, and conservative Republicans genuinely wanted a Social Security bill. Not having the votes, Tom DeLay and friends let the thing die rather than force hard choices on their conference, but that's not about conservative opposition. And at any rate, what DeLay and Bush said in 2005-2006 isn't really evidence of what Tea Partiers think today.
So: (1) we don't know what Tea Partiers really want because there are a whole lot of them and we don't have good information about it; (2) to understand why this particular phenomenon has flared up does not imply it should be dismissed; and, (3) I'm willing to accept Tea Partiers at their word for what issues they care about, but I'm not going to buy that anyone is for deficit reduction if their proposals would increase the deficit.
(Updated with several typos and awkward wordings fixed -- thanks to commenters for catching those)