Friday, March 25, 2011

Bachmann, Tea Partiers, and Nomination Politics

Michael Shear, in the NYT, says that the Tea Party is a winner if Michele Bachmann mounts a full-blown campaign:
Lots of Republican candidates offer lip service to the Tea Party. Even Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader and the definition of the establishment, has nice things to say about them now.
But Ms. Bachmann is a true champion of their cause. If she gets in the race, they will have a voice at debates, during television interviews, and on the stump around the country. She might not win, but Tea Party activists would certainly like to see her try.
It's certainly true that Bachmann will be much more of a full-throated advocate for Tea Partiers than most of the other candidates. What I don't really understand is exactly what that buys Tea Party true believers, other than louder lip service. Are there policy positions that Bachmann would take that differ from those of the other candidates? I don't think so; conservative Republicans dominate the presidential nomination process, and every viable candidate has and will tailor their positions to appeal to movement conservatives. Are there Tea Party positions that differ from other movement conservative positions? Perhaps a few things, on the flaky side (such as repealing direct election of Senators), but other than that? No.

Bachmann has, perhaps better than the other candidates in the race, fully absorbed the symbolic side of Tea Party politics, but the others are going to be tossing the words "Constitution" and "liberty" into their stump speeches just as much as she will.

Meanwhile, to the extent that the Tea Partiers really are separate from older branches of movement conservativism, there are several real dangers here for them: first, that Bachmann isn't exactly the most calm, sober, and careful politician around and they risk being branded with whatever nuttiness comes out of her mouth; but second, that they wind up being identified with their flakiest positions (see direct election of Senators, above). That is, if she wants to differentiate herself from the other candidates but cannot easily do so based on policy or even rhetorical differences, she may wind up emphasizing the goofiest stuff. Assuming, that is, that there are other, more mainstream and popular issues, that Tea Partiers would rather focus on.

One other thing worth mentioning about Michele Bachmann. She's the leader of the House Tea Party caucus, which has around 50 Members. And yet I think it's worth noting that she utterly failed to bring those Members with her on the first CR extension vote, a few weeks ago (a total of five Republicans joined her). Now, it's certainly been the case for a long time that clout on the Hill and success on the campaign trail are two entirely different things (as Lyndon Johnson learned in 1960, Howard Baker in 1980, Bob Dole in 1988, and Richard Gephardt in 1988 and 2004). Still, it's worth noting that no one in the House Republican conference feared that breaking with Bachmann would damage them with their Tea Party constituencies. Perhaps a presidential run would increase her stature...perhaps other circumstances would be different. But overall, it sure looks to me, as I said yesterday, that she's far more likely than not to wind up irrelevant to the serious working of choosing a nominee.


  1. I'm wondering about the extent to which there may be a rift between Bachmann and Palin. Bachmann was one of the politicians who refused to attend the Tea Party Convention in Feb. 2010, where Palin was the keynote speaker, citing ethical concerns and the high cost of tickets. (Judson Phillips, who headed the convention, called those opposed to the high prices "socialists.") We know Palin holds grudges like an elephant. Liberals tend to assume the two women are on exactly the same page, forgetting the large role that personality can play. I suspect that policy differences will play less of a role for the Tea Party candidates than these kind of symbolic squabbles.

  2. The Tea Party, to me, are nominally about 2 things, which in essence are really one thing.

    1) Unapologetic conservativism. Pure and dogmatic. It's about proving that you're a true believer. Why? See #2 (and why this is only 1 thing)

    2) Execution. If you take TPers at their word, Bush's big governnment conservativism angered them almost as much as Obama's liberalism, becuase Bush promised smaller government, but didn't deliver. TPers claim up and down that what they're really interested in is getting politicians to actually DO what they want. Thus, proving that you're dogmatic really just provides evidence for #2, so it really is one thing.

    Where you're absolutely right is that no candidate can prove what they're going to do in the future. In essence, the TP says they want something that is impossible.

    Now, this is if you take them at their word. If, like me, you find it very odd that these groups didn't exist during 8 years of profligate spending by Bush, and only seemed to appear the day we got our first African-American president, then you have a bit of trouble accepting their stated reasons. Never mind that I have seen absolutely no pushback from TPers over the socially conservative things that seem to animating the GOPers who won in November (while the TPers tend to be socially conservative, most seem to claim that spending is #1 with a bullet), and they don't seem to have stayed on the sidelines over killing off unions.

  3. "If, like me, you find it very odd that these groups didn't exist during 8 years of profligate spending by Bush, and only seemed to appear the day we got our first African-American president, then you have a bit of trouble accepting their stated reasons."

    This is explained by partisanship, not race. Republicans also questioned the foreign interventionism and spending of Clinton.

    While partisanship clearly fueled the tea party movement, I think there's also a genuine desire to see someone who is a "not Bush" Republican get in the white house. McCain chose Palin as his running mate largely because of this concern, that he would be _even worse_ than Bush was. With the upcoming primary, that interest is still there -- candidates like Bachmann, Palin, Ron Paul and Herman Cain are getting attention because they're saying what tea party republicans want to hear. Of course I think it's unlikely that any of these candidates will get enough support to win the primary, but we shall see...

  4. >This is explained by partisanship, not race.

    I agree. I do think a significant portion of the right is mired in racial resentment, and I think birtherism is essentially racist. But I think there'd have been a Tea Party even if a white Democrat had taken office in 2009. Likewise, I think there would be no Tea Party if a black Republican were president.

    >candidates like Bachmann, Palin, Ron Paul and Herman Cain are getting attention because they're saying what tea party republicans want to hear.

    I'm skeptical that Ron Paul is really much of a force in the Tea Party, even though he's often credited as its godfather. In 2010, he faced no fewer than three tea-party challenges in the primary. I don't think he's ever attended a Tea Party event, either.

  5. Kylopod:
    The first “tea party” was a nationwide Ron Paul rally in 2007. Rand Paul attended the event in Boston and I’d assume Ron was at another one:

    Ron Paul backers stage Boston Tea Party, raise millions

    Ron Paul is a regular at these events. He spoke at a tea party summit in Arizona last month (Paul came in second to Herman Cain in the straw poll).

    But I agree with your general point -- today’s tea party is far more conventionally conservative and I’m sure that many of them would never vote for Ron Paul. But Ron Paul does have intense support from a sizable minority in the tea party. I think it’s fair to say that this support is due more to his uncompromising call for limited government than his avuncular charm.


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