Over the past year, the Tea Party movement has grown to the point where it can get a great deal of press attention and exposure. While that may be a good thing for the Tea Party, it is proving to be not necessarily so for the Republican party, which has jumped onto the Tea Party bandwagon.
Some Republicans may have become affiliated with the Tea Party movement in the hope of aligning themselves with an invigorated and energetic grassroots conservative movement. Instead, Republicans are now finding themselves in alignment with a movement in which some members feel that it is OK to shout out racist and homophobic insults (including the N-word) and spit at Congressmen as happened this weekend when the Tea Party protested against healthcare reform on Capitol Hill.
Despite the weekend’s shocking behaviour – one Congressman and civil rights leader, John Lewis, said he had not experienced such attackssince the 1960s – Republicans, particularly GOP chairman Michael Steele, spent the weekend defending and rationalising those Tea Party goers’ actions. This is dangerous ground for the Republican party.
There are some benefits of getting involved in a movement that is not clearly defined. The Tea Party was originally framed in the media as an umbrella movement for a bunch of disgruntled Conservatives, whatever their discontent may be. On that level, the Tea Party presented an opportunity for Republicans to gain some leverage.
The flip side is that a movement with no specific cause attracts all sorts of people with all sorts of agendas, which can put the GOP in a tricky position, and potentially turn important voters against them. The idea of what a “conservative” or “Republican” is continues to be shaped and distorted by a minority of people on the fringes who get the most attention. This does nothing to attract new supporters or independents and it may indeed turn off existing, more moderate Republican supporters. This is not a good strategy for the 2010 elections – unless that is, the GOP is looking to portray itself as a very rightwing, almost extremist party.
The obstructionist attitude may have worked while healthcare reform was still going through Congress, but with its passing, it is likely that public sentiment may continue to warm in the president’s direction. The fringe elements of the Tea Party will only start to look more and more repulsive which would only harm the Republicans, making them look even more narrow and one-dimensional.
“Appealing to the base” seems to be a key concern of Republicans, but if the base is the type of people who were at the rally this weekend and Republicans do not denounce that type of behaviour, the Tea Party may start to be of more harm to the Republicans than good. Yet, this all leads back to the question that was raised after Barack Obama’s election, which is what the GOP actually stands for. Right now, it looks like the Tea Party is getting to say who the Republicans are. And that’s a type of tea that many people might not want to drink come election time.