Friday, January 06, 2012

Tea For Three

We haven't heard too much about the Tea Party of late, even during and immediately after the Iowa caucuses. Oh, there were mentions of that movement tagged on to some of the candidates, but nothing really substantive. Doyle McManus, columnist for the Los Angeles Times, had plenty to say in his most recent column, however. He posits that the movement is still alive and kicking.

A year ago, the tea party movement looked like an irresistible wave sweeping through the Republican Party. Anyone who hoped to win this year's GOP presidential nomination, it seemed, would need to embrace tea party activists' stringent demands for smaller government, lower taxes and deep cuts in spending.

But in Tuesday's Iowa caucuses, the three candidates who hewed closest to the tea party line — Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich — sank straight to the bottom of the pack. Instead of choosing a rigorous fiscal conservative such as Bachmann, Perry or Gingrich, Iowa Republicans divided most of their votes between Mitt Romney, the tea party's least favorite candidate, and Rick Santorum, a social conservative who voted for big spending and defended congressional earmarks when he was in the Senate. Ron Paul, at third place, was the most successful of the tea party-friendly candidates, but the acerbic libertarian's claim to 22% of Tuesday's caucus votes could well turn out to be his high-water mark for the year.

In national polls too the tea party's allure has been fading. A study in November by the Pew Research Center found that 27% of the public said they disagreed with the tea party, while only 20% said they agreed — a striking reversal from a year earlier, when 27% agreed. The poll's authors said it appeared that voters increasingly blamed the tea party and its champions in Congress for the gridlock in negotiations over the federal budget.

So does this mean the tea party over? Not exactly.

The tea party has changed the political landscape in ways that are likely to last for a while. Every Republican candidate, for example, at least claims now to be a fiscal conservative. Even Romney, whose greatest achievement as a governor was mandatory health insurance, now says he supports a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution that would cap spending at 20% of gross domestic product, a deep cut below the current 24%. Santorum goes even further, proposing a spending cap of 18%.

But the Tea Party is still around. Perry and Bachmann may not have benefited much, but probably for reasons unrelated to Tea Party interests: Perry was a stumbler in the debates and Bachmann was, well, just too crazy. Tea Party voters then had to decide among the remaining viable candidates and that meant the votes got divided among those candidates, leaving Romney with an embarrassingly slim victory.

According to the "entrance poll" sponsored by news organizations, about a third of those who voted in the GOP caucus pronounced themselves "strong supporters" of the tea party; of those, 30% said they voted for Santorum, 17% for Gingrich and 16% for Paul.

That fragmentation will continue, but it also looks like that support will keep Santorum, Gingrich, and Paul in the race for a while. The Tea Party is most certainly not dead. In fact, I anticipate that adherents will play at least some role in the 2012 general election, even if not as dramatic a role as it played in 2010.

And speaking of that 2010 election and the Tea Party candidates who made their way into the 112th Congress, the Center for Responsive Politics has issued a report which takes a look at the net worth of our congress critters, including the Tea Party beneficiaries.

The median average net worth of a member of the House Tea Party Caucus was $1.8 million in 2010. (Financial disclosure forms require lawmakers to value their assets and liabilities only in ranges, so it's impossible to know exactly how wealthy a particular elected official is. However, it's possible to calculate an average net worth for each member of Congress.)

That's significantly higher than the comparable number for the median House member: $755,000. It's also more than 130 percent above the $774,280 average net worth of the median, non-Tea Party Caucus House Republican.

Furthermore, the caucus, a group of 60 House members founded by Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), includes 33 millionaires and six members worth more than $20 million, according to the Center's research. That means a member of the group is more likely to be a millionaire than the average Republican who isn't in the caucus.
[Emphasis added]

That report raised both of my eyebrows. I suspect, however, that such findings wouldn't bother our Tea Party brethren one bit.

A shame, that.

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