Tuesday, March 28, 2017

How Successful Was the Tea Party Movement?

Over Dartmouth's recent spring break, I made some lunchtime remarks at a meeting of the Dartmouth Club of Dallas. The theme of my remarks was that we have recently seen, or will soon see, the poor outcomes of trends that have been a long time in the making. I used some examples that have been the subject of blog posts -- the depopulation of urban areas in the Midwest that put Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and even Ohio in play for the Republicans in 2016; the chronic underfunding of state and local pension plans; and the impending financial consequences of the Baby Boom generation shifting from being a large, productive cohort of contributors to old-age entitlement programs to being a large cohort of program beneficiaries.

On this occasion, I added a new outcome that we should have expected based on recent events. The election of Donald Trump represents the culmination of the Tea Party movement. Here's what I said:

As much as the media fomented stories about discord between the Trump campaign and the Republican establishment, Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus – reflecting the insurgent and the traditional elements of the Republican Party – were working together on Trump’s campaign since at least August 15th.

In light of this, I think we have to acknowledge that the Tea Party is one of the most electorally successful political movements in our lifetimes. I say electoral success – this does not necessarily imply ideological or policy success. And it has achieved its success without much formal, top-down mobilization. Recall that this movement began in February 2009 in opposition to Obama’s early policies, particularly his announced plans to give financial aid to bankrupt homeowners but also including the stimulus bill and eventually Obamacare. Some elements appear to be for a smaller public sector and lowering the public debt, but others have shown up to town hall meetings with, shall we say puzzling, slogans like, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.” (In fairness, though, we do refer to Medicare as an “entitlement program,” so eventually people might start believing that.)

As an aside, lest you think it matters as much to Trump supporters as it does to his critics, you may have been reading in newspapers this week articles with sensational headlines that contend that Trumpcare or Trump’s budget will disadvantage areas that voted for him. This is more misunderstanding of the phenomenon. Recall the origin of the movement – in opposition to a government handout that would have sent money to some of these same areas. I would argue that “nothing is the matter with Kansas” – it just doesn’t always vote its pocketbook. (We might even note that there are some positive social aspects of that approach.)

The Tea Party’s first victory was to strongly influence the outcomes in the 2010 midterm elections, flipping the House back to Republicans, which the Republicans have held since. The House turns over every two years, the Senate every six. In the first three Senate elections following the Tea Party’s formation, the Republicans picked up 13 seats: +6 in 2010, -2 in 2012, and +9 in 2014 to regain control before giving 2 back while retaining the Senate in 2016.  Given how many seats the Democrats will have to defend in 2018, the Democrats are unlikely to retake the Senate, despite what we are observing in Washington these days. 

And in 2016, the Tea Party elected a president. Much of what Trump considers to be his agenda – national security and sovereignty, economic nationalism, and (using Steve Bannon’s language) the deconstruction of the administrative state – appeals to the Tea Party movement. I don’t see how the other elements of the Reagan coalition – pro-business, libertarian, evangelical – can find their way back to power until, first, the Trump coalition organized around these nationalist themes surrenders its narrow Electoral College majority to a Democratic administration and, second, the population is ready to move on from that administration.

I made these remarks on March 17, before the debacle of the failure to move the AHCA the following week. What I take from that episode is that 2016 is this culmination of the Tea Party movement is also the peak of its electoral success. The rhetoric of criticism of the Obama administration was ill preparation for the realities of governing. Conor Friedersdorf describes the unraveling in riveting detail in the Atlantic yesterday. Save for appointments to the Supreme Court, President Trump is unlikely to accomplish anything fundamental that requires the Congress to participate. That includes the budget, walls on the border, and many other planks in his campaign platform. And the reason isn't that the Democrats refuse to cooperate -- it is that the Republicans will be unwilling or unable to move these initiatives along.

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