After the Tea Party’s election success, the American right has a mandate to fight for a smaller state
‘I am not a witch.’ Now that’s not something you hear very often from a politician. But Christine O’Donnell, Tea Party darling and Republican candidate in Delaware for the US Senate, felt the need to say these words in a campaign commercial, after a youthful dalliance with witchcraft was revealed. The denial was somewhat undermined by the all-black outfit and smoky background. But the Democrats and their cheerleaders in the US media had a field day.
These Tea Party folks? Strange, barking, dangerous. Who’d vote for them? As predicted, though Ms O’Donnell had won a stunning victory against a GOP establishment candidate for the Republican nomination, she lost to the Democrats in Tuesday’s mid-term elections. Presumably the broomstick community felt jilted — and her opposition to masturbation was hardly a vote-winner.
But the Tea Party, a potent brew of libertarianism, limited government and social conservatism, has had the last laugh.
While the Democrats and the media concentrated on its more exotic candidates and wilder fringes, they failed to notice (at least until it was too late) that something potentially transformative was stirring in the American grassroots. They’ve noticed now.
On Tuesday the Republicans took back control of the House of Representatives in the biggest landslide for 62 years; and they slashed the Democrats’ majority in the Senate, which means they’ve effectively lost control of the upper chamber too (Republicans plus populist, so-called ‘Blue Dog’ Democrats rapidly moving right equals a conservative majority in the Senate). President Obama’s name was not on Tuesday’s ballot. But he got a kicking nevertheless — and it was administered largely by the Tea Party.
Not all Republicans in the class of 2010 owe their seats to the Tea Party. But many do. Those that don’t are now dancing to the Tea Party’s tune. In primary after primary this summer Tea Party activists saw off more mainstream and better-financed Republicans to win the right to be the party’s candidates in the mid-term elections.
The Tea Party isn’t out to be a third force in American politics. Instead, it has infiltrated the Republicans and remoulded them in its own image. This summer it attempted, in effect, a hostile takeover of the Republican party — and pretty much succeeded. The GOP establishment is on the run, either leaving the fray altogether or reluctantly mouthing Tea Party mantras. The new Speaker of the House, John Boehner, spoke Tea Party Republican in the early hours of Wednesday morning when he said it was time to cut federal spending and assault big government. Even the once-maverick, middle-of-the-road Senator McCain had to move sharply right — and spend $20 million — to see off a Tea Party challenge.
The initial Democratic reaction was to deny that this was a genuine populist uprising. The Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi famously dismissed the Tea Party as ‘Astroturf’; as of Wednesday she is the former Speaker of the House. The Democrats then consoled themselves with the thought that the Republicans were lumbering themselves with a bunch of wackos likely to scare the wider electorate.
They weren’t entirely wrong when it came to the Senate: some Tea Party candidates, like Ms O’Donnell, proved a step too far for ordinary voters. The Tea Party fundamentalist Sharron Angle narrowly failed to oust the Senate Majority leader, Harry Reid, in Nevada, despite its economic troubles. And Sarah Palin’s anointed Senate candidate was defeated in her home state of Alaska.
But what the Democrats failed to realise was that the Tea Party insurgency was energising the Republican base to an extent inconceivable only two years ago, when the party was no longer in control of the White House, the Senate or the House — and even many Republicans regarded their president, George W. Bush, as one of the worst of modern times. The GOP leadership in Congress was lacklustre at best, brain-dead at worst. It looked as if the Republicans were heading for the same fate as the British Conservatives after they were thumped by Tony Blair in 1997 — out of power for a generation.
But the Tea Party brought the Republicans back to life, infusing them with a new enthusiasm for fiscal conservatism (which they had lost during the big-spending Bush years) and furnishing them with a new army of blue-collar troops in sharp contrast to the party’s traditional country-club image. As Tuesday’s elections approached, the Republicans were four percentage points ahead of the Democrats among registered voters. But among those likely to vote they had a 15-point lead. That explains their drubbing: to paraphrase the Sun after the 1992 British general election, it’s the Tea Party wot won it.
I spent a chunk of the summer with Tea Party activists in the American heartlands for a BBC documentary. I spoke to car workers in Ohio who’d lost their jobs, plain folk who’d lost their houses in Colorado. I travelled through the night in a bus with the Kentucky Tea Party en route to a massive rally in Washington. For the most part I found them decent, self-reliant, regular Americans who feared the American Dream was now over, not just for them but for their children and grandchildren.
Like all populist movements in American history they have more than their fair share of loony tunes, from so-called ‘birthers’ who insist (against all the evidence) that Obama wasn’t born in America and so has no constitutional right to be President, to slightly sinister groups like the ‘oath-keepers’ who have pledged not to round up their fellow Americans and put them in detention camps (of course there’s no prospect of this — but for some in the Tea Party tyranny is imminent). Many of them have an obsession with a fundamentalist interpretation of the US Constitution: they claim it forbids federal involvement in health, education or welfare, which should be the preserve of the states. There is also a racist fringe: if you hate big government, the fact it now has a black face gives some a reason to hate it all the more.
But exclude the extremes — the more sensible are trying to do just that — and the Tea Party is going with the grain of American attitudes. Its chief recruiting sergeant has been the dire state of the US economy, with unemployment stuck at almost 10 per cent and homes being lost at a record rate: 100,000 foreclosed in September alone. But almost as important is its visceral dislike of big government: most Americans now regard the federal government as the problem rather than the solution. Just look, they say, at the failure of Obama’s trillion-dollar stimulus.
They’d rather government got out of the way. There is a widespread constituency for taking an axe to Washington, though where it should strike and how deep remains vague. Even independent voters, who leaned strongly Republican on Tuesday, think this way.
Washington expects that Mr Obama will now run to the centre (as Mr Clinton did after he lost the House and the Senate in the 1994 mid-terms) so that he can do deals with the Republicans on Capitol Hill and fight for his re-election in 2012 from the centre ground. But Tea Party Republicans are in no mood to do deals with a President they loathe — and compromise might not be in the President’s make-up either. He’s just as likely to pick a fight with Congress, as Harry Truman did after the 1946 mid-terms, then blame the division and gridlock on the Republicans come 2012.
Mr Obama still has the look and feel of a two-term President to me, but I’m less sure than I was. The Tea Party would consider itself a failure if he were re-elected, though it doesn’t yet have a candidate who could
beat him. If the American economy stays in the doldrums he could be out whoever the Republicans run against him in 2012.
When a black man took the White House and the Democrats swept the Congress two years ago, we seemed to be at the dawn of a new age of American liberalism. But the Tea Party has forced a more trenchant conservatism to the top of the agenda. All Republicans will now sing that tune — and so, in 2012, will many Democrats. Nobody will seek election as an ‘Obama Liberal’. American politics has just lurched to the right.
Like all populist movements, the Tea Party will eventually peter out. It won’t succeed in returning America to the minimalist state of the 19th century. But it is a formidable enough threat to big government to challenge the 20th-century assumption that the size and scope of the state must always increase. That could be its enduring legacy for the 21st century.
Andrew Neil’s Tea Party America is available on BBC iPlayer; new.spectator.co.uk/teaparty.
On the road with the right
by Christina Lamb
For a party with no leader and no headquarters, the Tea Party did rather well in this week’s elections. Almost everywhere they influenced candidates. Two of their stars — Marco Rubio and Rand Paul — had convincing wins in the Senate. But who are the Tea Party, and what do they want? I travelled across Nevada and California with one of the biggest groups, the Tea Party Express, to find out.
We met in a giant glass pyramid, the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas. In front of the fake sphinx I found a large tour bus printed with a map of America and the slogan ‘Take Our Country Back’. The driver tells me the last people he drove on tour were Snoop Dogg and Motörhead. ‘The Tea Party are much better behaved,’ he adds. A nice lady called Janet gives me a welcome book and a Tea Party torch, presumably in case the lights go out over America. It soon becomes clear the Tea Partiers on board feel sorry for me. To them, Europe is the nightmare scenario of what Obama might inflict on their country.
The queen of the bus is Amy Kremer, an amply built former flight attendant who lost her job ‘because of swelling feet’. The way she tells it, the Tea Party was basically her midlife crisis. ‘I was bored when my daughter went off to college and I knew we weren’t on the right track and I was fed up with screaming at the TV,’ she says.
She had joined Facebook to keep in touch with her daughter, which led her to Twitter, through which she became one of 22 conservatives who initially formed Tea Parties, inspired by an on-air rant from the business reporter Rick Santelli. ‘If anyone had told me within two years we’d be here, I wouldn’t have believed them,’ she says. ‘We’re like a landscaping company — we’re changing the landscape of DC.’
What this meant was reducing a government deficit of more than $13 trillion. ‘We can’t spend our way out of debt. We’ll be owned by the Chinese if we don’t stop this.’
Sal Russo, the group’s chief strategist, agrees. ‘The Tea Party has only one issue which is fiscal responsibility,’ he says. ‘We don’t have positions on social issues. Some are against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, some for. Some are Christian conservatives, others are pro-life.’
Perhaps to accommodate all these views, they have a fleet of three buses. One contains entertainers who include Lloyd Marcus, a black singer in a cowboy hat who sings ‘The American Tea Party Anthem’ as well as that old favourite ‘Tea Are The World’.
We stop at small towns and country clubs with big glitterballs and bucking bronco rides. At each are the same stalls selling DVDs of Ronald Reagan’s speeches and copies of the Constitution, and the same assortment of people dressed in red, white and blue or in T-shirts with slogans such as ‘Go Green — Recycle Congress’ or ‘Deport all Illegals’. Many sport Sarah Palin badges. At every stop I see people wearing T-shirts comparing Obama to Hitler.
The scariest are the ones who look normal. Ellie Graves is a kindly white-haired woman who works as a nurse at Disneyland. Like all the others I meet, she tells me she is there because she is angry. Then she holds up her hand as if oath-taking, and says, ‘Obama wasn’t even born in America, he’s taken office by false pretences. I’ve been to Kenya and seen his birthplace.’
After all this there was one thing I needed — a cup of tea.
Christina Lamb is the Washington bureau chief of the Sunday Times.