Asked about the Tea Parties today, the President was ambivalent. While declaring himself reluctant to paint the entire movement with a broad brush, and acknowledging the legitimacy of concerns about the size of the government and its deficits, he pretty much said that "birthers" made up the core of the movement. The New York Daily News invited website readers to weigh in. It asked whether Tea Parties were an expression of genuine opposition to the President's agenda, an extremist refusal to reconcile with the election of an African-American Democrat, or a little bit of both. When I clicked "both," I learned that 21% of voters agreed with me, while 33% affirmed the legitimacy of TP concerns, and a near-majority, 46%, condemned the TPs as bigoted extremists.
It looks increasingly as if liberal and progressive Americans have made their decision and declared the Tea Parties their enemy. In recent weeks I've noticed a change in perceptions and portrayals of the movement. They are less likely now to be seen as dupes of the Republican party, and more likely to be seen as a dangerous fringe that is luring or pushing Republicans ever further to the right. This perception probably makes obvious sense from a liberal-progressive prospective. They saw Republicans prostrate after the 2006 and 2008 elections, yet confident of victory now. What's the difference? The Tea Parties, which seem to have finally acquired a life of their own in the liberal-progressive imagination. Charges of "astroturfing" orchestrated by Republicans seem less urgent now, replaced by a belief that the Democratic reform agenda has awakened something more primitive, more atavistic, more authentic than the GOP. In the minds of ever more Democratic sympathizers, the TP tail is wagging the GOP dog and the archetypal Tea Partier, to the extent to which he is the stereotypical Angry White Male -- the kind who resents his fellow working-class people for getting breaks he can't -- is the enemy closer to the liberal heart. Republicans are mere politicians, after all, while the grass roots grow genuine haters, and in their frustration over the obstacles thrown into the path of reform, Democrats and their auxiliaries are increasingly inclined to answer hate with hate.
If I'm right about this, an unexpected opening has emerged for the Republican party. They'll have to be careful about it, but so long as they keep their distance institutionally from the Tea Parties, however much individual Republicans egg them on, the GOP could occupy a position in the consensus imagination closer to the center of the political continuum, with Democrats on the "left" and the Tea Parties on the "right." This may only testify to how much the terms of discourse as a whole have shifted drastically rightward, but it still leaves Republicans an opportunity to triangulate their way back into power as the conservative alternative to Democrats and the responsible, statesmanlike alternative to the Tea Parties. All it would take would be the discovery and repudiation of some "Sister Souljahs" of the far right and Republicans would suddenly appear, to the gullible, as the reasonable, moderate option. Any such move would risk losing Tea Party votes, but the risk might be justified by the prospect of gains from "moderates" spooked both by the propaganda version of "socialist" health care reform and the propaganda vision of "lunatic" Tea Partiers. I can't guarantee that the Republicans will manage this trick; they may be too dumb to do it or too genuinely zealous to want to. But there are months to come for the backlash against the Tea Parties to build and motivate people to vote Democratic if only to stick it to the TPs. If Democrats want to go to war with a group still only tentatively affiliated with the Republican party, and thus easily jettisoned if necessary, GOP leaders should say, "let's you and him fight" while stepping above the fray. They might be surprised by how many people they fool.