It`s pretty much settled Democratic Party theology that the Tea Party movement consists of little more than racist, angry white male knuckle draggers. Inconveniently, the stereotype is wrong.
For one thing, the Tea Party isn’t a boys’ club — either old or good old. In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that a majority of both Tea Party members and Tea Party leaders are female.
According to a poll done by Quinnipiac University, 55 percent of self-identified Tea Partiers were women (albeit the poll’s margin of sampling error was relatively high). However, the finding is consistent with information gathered by major Tea Party groups. According to Kenneth Vogel at the Website Politico, Darla Dawald, national director of the Tea Party social network site ResistNet, estimates that 55 percent of ResistNet’s 74,000 members are female. Vogel also reports that 15 of 25 state coordinators for Tea Party Patriots, an umbrella coalition of local Tea Party groups, are female, as are five of its nine national coordinaseetors.
These findings should raise a red flag for Democrats. It’s never good politics to insult and make fun of girls (especially when fewer and fewer boys support you to begin with). And insulting Tea Partiers has become a Democratic blood sport. Karl Rove, writing last week in the Wall Street Journal, quoted a Democratic National Committee e-mail that referred to Tea Partiers as “narrow minded … nut jobs” and “two-bit wing-nuts.” Democrats regularly refer to Tea Partiers as “teabaggers,” a term from gay slang that refers to a form of oral sex.
Well, it’s a free country, and you can say almost anything you want. Still, such rhetoric isn’t going to win any prizes for civil discourse and isn’t going to attract the votes of the 40 percent of Tea Partiers who identify as either Independents or Democrats. And that could, to paraphrase Vice President Biden, be a big bleeping deal in Blue Dog congressional districts this fall.
The larger problem for Democrats, however, is they write off the Tea Party as primarily racist and paranoid, as New York Times columnist Frank Rich recently did. That stereotype is also wrong.
To be sure, there are undoubtedly racists and conspiracy theorists in the Tea Party movement. But the fringe does not define the movement.
According to Fox News, on April 15, the Tea Party movement intends to publish its own version of the Republicans’ 1994 Contract With America, a document setting out their values, beliefs and solutions for the country’s biggest problems. The Tea Party’s version is called a “Contract from America,” since its planks are being determined by an online vote.
The first three of them were released last week, and they strike me as having a lot of mainstream appeal. Interestingly, none of them spoke to health care. Again, according to Fox:
“The top priority, chosen by 80.7 percent of respondents, is to protect the Constitution. This would require each bill to identify the specific provision of the Constitution that gives Congress the power to do what the bill does.
“The second priority, selected by 70.8 percent, is to reject President Obama’s climate change legislation, otherwise known as ‘cap and trade.’ “The third priority is demand a balanced budget — chosen by 69.9 percent. This calls for starting a constitutional amendment process to require a balanced budget with a two-thirds majority needed for any tax hike.”
These ideas will obviously appeal a lot more to Republicans than Democrats, which is hardly surprising considering that a majority of Tea Party adherents are Republicans. But chances are they will resonate with a lot of independents and Democrats as well.
Take the Tea Party’s second priority — rejecting cap and trade legislation. National polling has shown that cap and trade is as unpopular as health care legislation and for many of the same reasons, including cost and intrusiveness. That one will surely resonate.
And the Tea Partiers’ third priority — support for a balanced budget amendment. It’s a Republican idea that has been around for decades, but in a year where most Americans think both Congress and the executive branch have forgotten how to handle money, it could be an idea whose time has come.
As for the Tea Partiers’ first priority — defending the Constitution by requiring bills in Congress to state the specific provision of the Constitution that gives Congress the power to do what the bill does — I’ve never heard that one before, but I think it’s a great idea. Among other things, it means senators and representatives would have to renew their oaths to uphold the constitution every time they sponsored a bill — or even voted on one.
Who could oppose that? Judging by the first three planks, the Tea Party’s ideas, though conservative, are well within the American political mainstream and have a lot of popular appeal. Moreover, the process of arriving at those ideas seems to have involved a good deal of consensus seeking, which is more in keeping with the sort of tea parties girls hold than the one Boston’s boys staged in 1773.
Democrats don’t get the Tea Partiers, and that could be a bigger problem for them than they think. The quickest way to lose an American election is to be dismissive of your opponent when the wind is at her back.