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Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany

The Tea Party Continues


By Matthias Kolb

Translated By Ron Argentati

19 February 2013

Edited by Gillian Palmer


Germany - Süddeutsche Zeitung - Original Article (German)

In February 2009, Barack Obama was just four weeks into his first term. Many conservative Americans had nonetheless already made the determination that he was “a socialist,” capable only of increasing public indebtedness. They could neither understand why banks had to be rescued with public funds nor why billions of dollars in bailout funds were necessary to stabilize the faltering economy.

While Washington was debating an aid program for home owners in deep debt, business journalist Rick Santelli lost his patience. His rant changed all of American politics. He was broadcasting live from the floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange on February 19, 2009 for CNBC. Santelli complained that the government should help the “people who might have a chance to actually prosper down the road and reward people that can carry the water instead of drink the water.” The traders near him applauded during his rant and cheered Santelli's invitation to all capitalists to attend what he called a “Chicago Tea Party” to protest against the government.

In his book “Pity the Billionaire,” author Thomas Frank wrote that the clip had no sooner appeared on the Internet before the first Tea Party groups had already formed. Their members demanded lower taxes, a reduction in public debt and less governmental influence in their lives.

The term “Tea Party” was meant to be reminiscent of the famous protest action against the British colonial masters in 1773 Boston, with the updated addition that TEA now stood for “taxed enough already.” The movement, drawing great support from many conservative lobbying groups and the cable television outlet Fox News, struck a raw nerve with the American public: In November 2010, 87 Tea Party candidates were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and the Democrats lost their majority.

On the Road to Being Meaningless?

Yet four years after Santelli's rant, Obama is still in charge and has even managed to put through higher taxes on the wealthy. Is the Tea Party on the road to being meaningless? In January 2013, surveys showed that only 8 percent of Americans claimed allegiance to the Tea Party — in April 2010, after passage of Obama's controversial health care reforms, that figure stood at 24 percent.

And conservative strategist Karl Rove has meanwhile founded a super-PAC to prevent overly radical candidates like Todd Akin from costing the Republicans congressional seats. Sarah Palin, the party's icon, was given the heave-ho by Fox News and young governors insist Republicans must stop being a “stupid party.”

But there are some indications that the Tea Party will continue to leave its mark on American politics for a long time to come.

President Obama often justifies his progressive agenda by citing his reelection, but that argument doesn't especially impress the Republicans in the House of Representatives. Each of the 234 Republican members of Congress won their respective elections to uncompromisingly oppose the White House agenda as well.

There are currently 72 Tea Party members in the House. In a PBS interview, the prominent political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein say they're convinced the Tea Party faction will fight on: “What's special about the class of 2010 in Congress is that they believe they're on a mission. That they and they only know what Washington's problem is, what the solution looks like and that the solution need only be implemented.”*

This “all or nothing” posture looks like this: A constitutional amendment is needed to enforce a balanced budget policy. Public debt must be reduced through radical spending cuts, with the result that Washington will be starved to death. Author Thomas Frank thinks this ideology, which makes investment in the future (education, infrastructure, etc.) difficult and restricts the government's operating space, is dangerous, noting that many of the representatives elected in 2010 were businessmen who believe a government shouldn't spend more than it takes in. But Frank also notes, “A state is not a hardware store. It must contract debts in crisis times.”

The Tea Party Now Represents the Conservative Image; That’s Bad for the Republican Party

The Republican image in 2013 is formed by three men: Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz. Rubio's support for immigration and his response to Obama's State of the Union speech (overshadowed by his water bottle attachment) caused a stir, while Graham continues to press for more answers to the Benghazi incident before he will support Chuck Hagel's nomination as secretary of defense, even though there is no connection between Hagel and the Benghazi attacks.

Whoever doubts the Republican commitment to denying reforms need only look at Texas Senator Ted Cruz's behavior. The new senator has already established his reputation as an uncompromising nay-sayer. His aggressive combative style has already drawn comparisons with commie-hunter Joe McCarthy in the 1950s, from not only Democrats but from journalists across the political spectrum, from the Washington Post to Forbes magazine.

Cruz openly speculates whether Chuck Hagel took payments from North Korea and has challenged the Vietnam War veteran to prove he hasn't.

It apparently doesn't concern Cruz that his Republican Senate colleague John McCain, himself often described as having volcanic tendencies, advises Cruz to take a more moderate tone. In press interviews Cruz responded by saying, “I made promises to the people of Texas that I would come to Washington to shake up the status quo.” Cruz gained his party's nomination over an establishment Republican in the 2012 primary election with help from the Tea Party and won't be up for reelection until 2018.

The Tea Party Agenda Remains Influential

The fact that Lindsey Graham has been acting so uncompromising lately is due to simple reality: He wants to be reelected in 2014. South Carolina is conservative terrain; Graham need not fear running against a Democrat. His greatest competition would be another Republican who positioned himself further to the right than Graham. Because Graham belongs to a group of senators who want to see immigration reform, he tries his best to make himself invulnerable to attack on other issues. Republican shooting star Marco Rubio, who owes his last electoral success to the Tea Party, is also in the same category. He also calls for updating immigration policy while downplaying his support for the ultra-conservative mantra against same-sex marriage, in favor of lower taxes and less regulation.

The fact that John Boehner, top Republican in the House of Representatives, has had such a hard time coming to some kind of deal with Obama shows how different the politics are between the new representatives and the Republican establishment. Raúl Labrador put it this way to PBS: “What people don’t understand about the Tea Party, the Tea Party didn’t arise because of President Barack Obama. The Tea Party arose because they were frustrated with the Republican Party.”

Labrador finds it just as bad when politicians cut back room deals, saying citizens have a right to transparency. South Carolina's Jeff Duncan considers “compromise” to be a dirty word. He says, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Duncan welcomes the automatic budget cuts that come with the sequester, the argument being that anything that lowers the debt is good. That position can't just be ignored: Nearly every third Republican representative supports the Tea Party.

Only Republicans Can Endanger Republicans

The subject of political polarization in the U.S. has already been touched upon with the example of Lindsey Graham: The most liberal Republican in the House of Representatives is far to the right of the most conservative Democrat. There are several reasons for that: Americans have been choosing to live in areas where like-minded people reside for decades now. Additionally, both parties have perfected the art of redistricting voting precincts to give their own candidates an advantage.

The most recent redistricting outcome was seen in the results of the 2012 election which gave the Republicans a huge advantage. That action resulted in Democrats winning the popular vote for the House by some 1.4 million votes over the Republicans — but they nevertheless remained the minority party. Princeton professor Sam Wang calculates that Democrats would currently need to win by 7 percentage points in order to retake majority control of the House. Political observer Charlie Cook describes the task facing Obama's party as being very difficult. The outcome in only 99 of the 435 districts can't be already be predicted. In the remaining districts, the winner can already be safely predicted — and in 190 of the rest, the winner will be the Republican candidate.

Representatives need fear only competition from within their own party. For the Tea Party, this means they will not make it easy for the Republicans to elect one of their own to the presidency — but they will help wherever possible to defend the obstructionist strategy in Congress.

*Editor’s Note: This quotation, accurately translated, could not be verified.



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