Who Are the Tea Partiers, and Who Speaks for Them?

Dick Armey certainly thinks he does. As a self-appointed spokesperson for the movement, he’s trying hard to make Social Security privatization one of the big issues in the upcoming midterm election. It’s not clear his Tea Party comrades are behind him, however.

The silly season is upon us, when the Democratic and Republican establishments become obsessed with wedge issues and rallying their respective “Bases.” In the case of the Republicans, keeping the Tea Party movement enthused and eager to vote this November are crucial. Understanding who these people really are and what they want is essential.

What do the Republicans think they know, and what is the reality?

Dick Armey, who heads up Freedomworks, which has played a crucial role in framing a unified Tea Party message for the media, thinks privatizing Social Security is one his comrades’ chief concerns. Last week, Armey penned an op-ed for USA Today in which he termed Social Security “generational theft” and – echoing conservative patriarchs Barry Goldwater, Milton Friedman, and Ronald Reagan – called for the program to be made voluntary.

Americans should ask, if Social Security is such a great program, why is it mandatory? Workers should have the choice about whether they want to remain in the current system or invest in a personal saving retirement account, which would allow them to have complete control over their retirements funds and pass the remaining balance to family members. Let’s have Social Security compete against other investment options.

The op-ed clearly identifies Armey is chairman of FreedomWorks and co-author of Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto. A week later, Armey and his second-in-command at FreedomWorks, Matt Kibbe, published another op-ed, in the Wall Street Journal. This time they went after Medicare, which – without calling it by name – they caricatured as

a government-defined health-insurance plan that is unaffordable, unnecessary or unwanted.

Armey and Kibbe make clear that they – and, presumably, their co-insurgents – intend to topple not just the Democratic majority in Congress but the Old Guard of the Republicans. The whole thing sounds very much like the insurrection that Armey and Newt Gingrich led in 1994, and which he’s framing as the forerunner of today’s Tea Party candidates for House and Senate.

Let us be clear about one thing: The Tea Party movement is not seeking a junior partnership with the Republican Party, but a hostile takeover of it.

But do the Tea Partiers really share their agenda? An April poll by CBS News and the New York Times, that somehow seems to have been wiped from many Washington reporters’ and editors’ memories, found that 62% say programs like Social Security and Medicare are worth the costs to taxpayers – less than the 76% figure for Americans overall, but still quite supportive of the program. This despite the fact that 63% of Tea Partiers (compared to 23% of Americans overall) said they got the majority of their TV political and current events news from Fox News: not known for its support for Social Security.

Some of the Tea Partiers’ most deeply held views had less to do with what they got from government than with what others got. For instance, 52% believed too much is made of the problems facing black people, compared with 28% of all Americans. They’re also more likely to undocumented immigrants as a serious problem. Social Security and Medicare are OK, it would seem, so long as the “wrong” people don’t collect benefits.

New York Sen. Chuck Schumer may have uttered the truest words of this campaign as far back as April, when, responding to the poll, he noted that most voters claim to be anti-government to some extent “when it’s not helping them,” but perhaps only then. “The Achilles’ heel of the antigovernment people,” he suggested, “is Medicare and Social Security.”

If that April poll still holds true, Armey and FreedomWorks may be placing a very risky bet. Tea Party politics is the politics of resentment. When journalists and pollsters try to constituents try to coax a positive agenda for change out of Tea Partiers, their positions are revealed as an inconsistent hodge-podge. For instance, in their Journal op-ed, Armey and Kibbe note that one of the individuals they spotlight as one of the movement’s “spontaneous” organizers last year, Keli Carender of Seattle, is very concerned about fiscal policy.

“Our nation’s fiscal path is just not sustainable,” she said. “You can’t continue to spend money you don’t have indefinitely.”

But how is this to be reconciled with the almost biblical faith in tax reduction that most Tea Partiers are supposed to hold? If tax increases are off the table for budget-balancing purposes, then domestic programs would face devastating cutbacks (nobody in Washington holds out much hope for really significant reductions in military spending, of course, and Tea Party candidates never mention such a thing).

Tea Partiers tend to be older than most Americans: 75% are 45 or older and 29% are 65 and up. How will they react if they succeed in electing a new cadre to the House and Senate who then turn to promoting private accounts at the cost of destabilizing Social Security?

The short answer is that no one knows. Perhaps the most intriguing result of the CBS/Times poll in April was that more three-quarters of Tea Partiers had never attended a rally or donated to a group, while most had also not visited a Tea Party Web site. This is a mass movement only prospectively, it turns out. The GOP still have a hard job turning it into a real one, and if they do, they might not like all of what they see.

Dick Armey may be more worried about this than he lets on. His Journal op-ed this week, which he calls “A Tea Party Manifesto,” doesn’t mention Social Security at all. Neither did the Contract with America, the document that the conservative members elected to Congress in 1994 subscribed to. And neither does the “Contract from America” that various Tea Party candidates have signed.

Another similarity between both “contracts,” however, is the demand for a balanced budget. Republican lawmakers and candidates, whatever else they like to call themselves, remain split between tax cutters and deficit hawks. Convincing the likes of Keli Carender that they can do both – and “upend” Social Security, as Armey proposes – without putting many Tea Partiers directly at risk, may not be easy.

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