The Tea Party Panic

The “Tea Party Nation” held its first national convention on February 4. The enthusiasm surrounding and national media coverage of this event testified to the ever-increasing national strength of the Tea Party movement. This momentum should make the Republican Party very afraid. Similar to the Birther movement, this related manifestation of right-wing extremism represents a political fire that could seriously burn the GOP. First of all, any movement that brings Sarah Palin back into the spotlight is bad for the Republicans. Although her speech to the Tea Party national convention has generated very different reactions, it is undeniable that the speech has brought her back into the limelight of national politics. Palin may inspire a dedicated base of followers, but the broad electorate’s lack of confidence in her was revealed in a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 71% of Americans do not feel she is qualified to be president. Unfortunately for those wanting a Republican to win the White House in 2012, Nate Silver thinks Palin could win the Republican nomination for President. Given her performance in the 2008 campaign, President Obama must be praying for that outcome.

Another speaker at the Tea Party Nation convention is also toxic for the Republican brand: Tom Tancredo. The former Congressman from Colorado delivered an angry rant against immigrants. Bashing immigrants is not good for the Republican Party’s long-term political viability in a country with ever-increasing numbers of Latinos. If the Republicans want their relationship with the Latino community to resemble their relationship with the black community, Tancredo is the perfect man for the job.

Tea-partiers have already probably hurt the Republicans. They claim credit for forcing the moderate Republican Dede Scozzafava out of the race for New York’s 23rd congressional district last year, which then allowed a Democrat to win a normally very safe Republican seat. They may be overstating their role in this electoral failure, but the fact remains that their brand of right-wing populism is a major political liability for the Republican Party. Winning the center is essential in American politics, but this will be extremely difficult if they are closely associated with self-described rightist counter-revolutionaries.

The political damage could get even worse for the GOP. Tea Party activists are even talking about running their own candidates in congressional elections! Indeed, Tea Party activists are currently preparing to field their own candidate to do battle for Harry Reid’s Senate seat. Given that the overwhelming majority of Tea Party activists would vote for a Republican in a two-way race, this development can only be described as a gift for Democrats.

The Republican Party may be able to prevent this vote splitting if it can successfully incorporate the Tea Party into the fold. After all, absorption within one of the major two parties has been the fate of most third party movements in American history. This task will not be easy, however, as the Tea Party movement is highly critical of the Republican Party as a whole for participating in the expansion of Big Government. Already, activists are becoming dismayed by the prospect of Palin hijacking the Tea Party movement.

I find the bizarreness of the Tea Party phenomenon a bit creepy. The Republican establishment should be absolutely terrified.