Who are the Tea Partyers?

Just who are the Tea Partyers? And how far will the Republican establishment go to prevent the resurgence of Reagan conservatism? 

Those are the two questions which will decide whether the Republican Party can make a decisive comeback in the next year.

As Newt Gingrich told me in August — at the height of the town hall uprising against Obamacare — the Tea Partyers seem to be the same kind of people who rose up in anger to support Ross Perot in 1992. 

Perot’s “Reform Party” achieved 20% of the 1992 vote, enough to enable Democrat Bill Clinton to gain the White House.  Incumbent George H.W. Bush was seen as an ultimate Washington insider who had distanced himself too much from the policies of the president who he had served for the preceding eight years. The Perotistas were people highly distrustful, fed up with Congress and Washington politics which they believed was ignoring them.

The 1992 exit polls told the tale.  Perot voters were made up (in almost equal parts) of all ages, all races and both genders.  Fifteen percent were Democrats and twenty-one percent were Republicans but — most importantly — thirty-three percent were independents. 

Twenty-six percent of them hadn’t voted in the 1988 presidential election.  They were angry, sufficiently so to vote against the status quo in Washington.

One of the Tea Party leaders from a western state told me last week that they were real conservatives, a reflection of the base.  He could not be more wrong.

The Perotistas were in 1992 — and the Tea Partyers are now — “kitchen table issue” voters.  Healthcare is one of those issues that affects families directly, and most Americans feel strongly enough about it to become politically active.  Their political activity is transient, and their votes — to the extent they are cast — are up for grabs.

The question is whether Republicans can capture their anger and turn their energy into votes?  Or will the Tea Partyers stay home in 2010 as they did in 1988?

The political currents are much the same as they were in 1992.  Congressional job approval remains very low, about 25% according to the latest Real Clear Politics average.  And in the generic congressional ballot – the party approval ratings – Democrats still lead by 45% to 39.5%. 

As one recent poll found, most Americans believe that their healthcare system will be better if Congress does nothing rather than pass Obamacare, and believe that members of Congress don’t have a good understanding of the subject.

And all the political energy expended by the Tea Partyers in August seems to have gone for naught.  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi plans to pass a healthcare bill that will be – in all relevant terms – the same as the one that was the subject of all the August outrage. 

And the transient energy of the Tea Partyers?  It’s no longer in evidence. 

Congressional Republicans are suffering from legislative exhaustion.  They’ve been swimming against the Obama congressional tsunami since February and they’ve lost a lot of big battles.  A good many of them have fought the good fight, but they’ve still lost on everything from the faux “stimulus” package to the awful and unconstitutionally vague “hate crimes” law.  At this point, too many are fatalistic, seeing nothing more than a continuing string of defeats this year and next.

Establishment Republicans among them aren’t helping themselves. They’re ignoring conservative causes and neglecting to campaign to capture the Tea Partyers and the other votes that they can gain with a concerted effort aimed at them.  

Perhaps the best example of the struggle between the Republican Establishment and resurgent conservatives is the otherwise obscure special election next month in New York’s 23rd congressional district. Most of the House Republican leadership is backing the hyperliberal “Republican” candidate Dede Scozzafava against conservative Doug Hoffman (Indiana conservative Mike Pence being the notable exception). 

Prominent conservatives across the nation — former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson and former House Minority Leader Dick Army, among many others — have come out strongly for Hoffman.  The Republican establishment is content with Scozzafava, who will — if she’s elected — make former Republican Arlen Specter look like a staunch party loyalist.

In the Senate, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) heads the outreach program. Is she concentrating on the Tea Partyers and independents? No: she’s going on a pander-quest, reaching out to women, blacks and Hispanics, usually-reliable Democratic voting blocks unlikely to be brought aboard the Republican train.  Jennifer Lopez isn’t going to help Murkowski.

These are not the moves of a party serious about winning in 2010 and beyond.

The Republican establishment disdains ideological conservatives.  Even some in the conservative media argue that to win, Republicans have to shy away from ideological campaigns.  But ideological campaigns are built on solid conservative ideas and principles.  It is these campaigns, not those such as John McCain’s last year, that win over independent voters.

It’s one thing to energize your base. But you have to build on it to win elections.  The moment to start is now.

Republicans need to think — and act right now — on the Tea Partyers’ distrust of government and analyze what else will animate independents.  Whether you call them Tea Partyers or “Reagan Democrats” doesn’t matter.  What matters are those “kitchen table” issues.

Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are pushing hard for the government-run healthcare takeover.  Why isn’t the RNC running ads in every media market where the House Blue Dogs sit, asking the Tea Partyers specifically and everyone else to call their offices to demand that they vote against it? 

Scott Rasmussen reports that thirty-eight percent of Americans think budget reduction is the top priority.  All year, Speaker Pelosi has blocked Republicans’ ability to offer amendments on appropriations bills.  Why isn’t Minority Leader John Boehner fighting openly against her?  Forget earmarks: they’re small change.  Republicans need to make the Obama multi-trillion dollar spending spree a top issue. 

Ross Perot ran a campaign based almost entirely on the idea of reining in federal spending.  And when Americans are losing jobs, fearing for the safety of their home investments and looking at what Washington is spending, that’s a kitchen table issue just as much as healthcare. 

The Republican Party used to stand with the independents — the Reagan Democrats — on everything from federal spending to national security.  It’s time to renew that focus, and conduct a national ideological campaign.  If they start now, they can win big next year, and again in 2012.  If they don’t, they will remain in the wilderness.  And none of the Tea Partyers will shed a tear.