So get this: The problem with the Tea Party is that it’s been too busy pushing a socially conservative agenda.
That’s the argument of the highly regarded Harvard scholar Robert Putnam and his co-author, Notre Dame’s David Campbell, writing in the New York Times this morning:
This inclination among the Tea Party faithful to mix religion and politics explains their support for Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. Their appeal to Tea Partiers lies less in what they say about the budget or taxes, and more in their overt use of religious language and imagery, including Mrs. Bachmann’s lengthy prayers at campaign stops and Mr. Perry’s prayer rally in Houston. Yet it is precisely this infusion of religion into politics that most Americans increasingly oppose.
This analysis is, in a word, preposterous, as the fact that they can’t point to a single instance in the past year in which the “Tea Party” has pushed a socially conservative agenda attests.
In point of fact, the effective line of attack against the Tea Party that helped damage its reputation came over the past couple of months not in relation to social issues but due to the recalcitrance of its self-appointed “leaders” when it came to raising the debt ceiling.
This is what led the vice president to call them terrorists and Harry Reid to call them every name in the book. After months of using the words “tea party” as a pejorative, it began to stick—especially since it did appear that its members were willing to risk a national default to create a fiscal crisis that would force the immediate slashing of the size of the federal government.
It’s hard to square this fact with Campbell’s and Putnam’s claim that “over the last five years, Americans have moved in an economically conservative direction: they are more likely to favor smaller government, to oppose redistribution of income and to favor private charities over government to aid the poor. While none of these opinions are held by a majority of Americans, the trends would seem to favor the Tea Party.”
So by their own admission, on the issue that brought the Tea Party to prominence—the excessive size of the federal government—the Tea Party is riding a national wave of disaffection. What happened was that in pushing that point, the Tea Party came up against two forces: a huge counterattack targeting the words “tea party” specifically and a problematic provocative stand that seemed to want a national crisis.
Where on earth are social issues in all this? Where? Rick Perry’s stratospheric rise this weekend featured appearance after appearance in which he said almost nothing about social issues. And Bachmann did not reach her altitude talking about social issues either. Indeed, today the conservative columnist Michelle Malkin goes after Perry with a hatchet on an issue about which she deems him to have been both insufficiently socially conservative and too willing to use big government.
Campbell and Putnam liken the Tea Party now to the McGovernites who took over the Democratic Party in 1971-72 and drove it into the worst landslide loss in American history. But the fact is that the McGovernites had misunderstood the national mood in calling for an unambiguous American defeat in Vietnam. The Tea Partiers, as Campbell and Putnam themselves say, are reading the national mood right—including in the way its members precisely aren’t concentrating on abortion and gay marriage and the like.