MAKING a virtue of a necessity, Barack Obama has talked endlessly in recent weeks about the wonders of bipartisanship. He has to, now that the Republicans’ capture of Ted Kennedy’s old seat in the Senate last month has deprived the Democrats of the supermajority they were banking on in order to enact much of their legislative programme. Mr Obama has invited congressional leaders from both parties to a summit on health reform at the end of the month. And on February 9th he appealed for both sides to transcend “petty politics” and reach for compromise.
Will they? Democrats and Republicans pay lip service to bipartisanship all the time. But the Republicans have two good reasons not to heed the president’s plea right now. The first reason is that it suits them nicely to keep the Democrats in Congress floundering as November’s mid-term election approaches. The second reason is the tea-party movement.
A year ago this movement did not exist. Now it is by some accounts the most potent force in American politics. So when the “Tea Party Nation” began its first national convention in Nashville, Tennessee, on February 4th, Republicans paid particular attention. The event’s grand finale was a tirade against Barack Obama by the movement’s unofficial patron saint, Sarah Palin, who now says that she might run for president in 2012. But although the former governor and self-described “hockey mom” from Alaska captured the headlines, she was shrewd enough not to claim leadership of a movement that is suspicious of leaders. The bigger message to the Republicans from Nashville was this: whatever else they may or may not stand for, tea-partiers do not want to see Republicans making compromises in Washington.
Even after a long weekend of speeches and workshops in Nashville, the precise composition, aims and ideology of this movement remain hard to pin down. That is because the tea-party is precisely what its supporters say it is: not an artificial “Astroturf” creation of the Republican Party, but a genuine grassroots movement, highly decentralised and composed of many people who have not participated in politics before. They have no agreed platform and no unified national organisation: the Tea Party Nation is itself only one of many tea-party organisations that have sprung up spontaneously around America. These people are learning their trade, honing their tactics and defining their politics as they go along.
One thing that became clear in Nashville however was that the 600 or so solid conservative types, mostly middle-aged and many of them women, who shelled out $549 for a ticket to attend were not interested in minor modifications of Mr Obama’s health plan, budget or cap-and-trade legislation. As a name that harks back to the Boston Tea Party suggests, they see themselves as revolutionaries, or counter-revolutionaries. They want to “take back” an America which they say has been going wrong for generations as successive administrations have bloated the federal government and trampled on the constitution and the rights of states and individuals. Many of those attending said that Mr Obama’s election and big-spending, deficit-expanding first year had been a sort of negative epiphany. “Suddenly I’m awake,” said Kathleen Gotto from Colorado Springs, who had not previously been involved in politics.
Tom Tancredo, a former congressman and presidential candidate from Colorado, caught the mood and earned thunderous applause for thanking God that Mr Obama had defeated John McCain in 2008. Had Mr McCain won, America would have continued the long drift to the left that set in with Franklin Roosevelt. For decades, he said, Americans had been like the proverbial frog, boiling unawares by slow degrees in the cauldron of the nanny state. But when voters who could “not even spell the word ‘vote’ or say it in English” put that “socialist ideologue”, Barack Hussein (Mr Tancredo’s emphasis) Obama, into the White House, he turned the heat up so high that voters at last woke up to what was happening and started to jump out of the cauldron.
If the tea-party movement confined itself to venting steam in speeches, it might not present such a potent challenge to established politics. But it can mobilise big numbers: tens of thousands of supporters (tea-partiers claim a million or so) rallied in Washington, DC, last September. And now it is moving beyond rallies to a hard focus on elections. Much of the Nashville event was devoted to teaching the fired-up newbies practical skills, such as using Facebook and Twitter to spread the word, raise money and get out the vote so that “true conservatives” could challenge Democrats and RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) in local elections and primaries.
The organisers promised to set up a political action committee to recruit and support candidates who would champion fiscal responsibility, lower taxes, smaller government and national security. Tea-partiers have already claimed scalps. They forced a moderate Republican out of the race for New York’s 23rd congressional district last year (though the perverse result was that this allowed a Democrat to win in a normally safe Republican seat), and claim the credit for electing Scott Brown last month in Massachusetts.
Plainly, any congressional Republican tempted to betray the counter-revolution by heeding Mr Obama’s calls for compromise would be a prime target for attack. But if it is dangerous for Republicans to antagonise the tea-partiers, is it also dangerous to flirt with them?
For all the talk about practical electioneering, some of those in Nashville teetered on the edge of the extreme and wacky. Thus the newly awakened Ms Gotto said she was researching Mr Obama’s family records for evidence that he was not eligible to be president. Mr Tancredo denounced the “cult of multiculturalism” and accused immigrants of swamping America’s Judeo-Christian values. “This is our country,” he declared to wild cheers, “Take it back!” Andrew Breitbart, the founder of a news site (Breitbart.com), railed in a speech against the hostile “mainstream media” in hock to the far left. At one point he had almost the entire audience on its feet, turned to the reporters and cameramen at the back of the room, pumping fists and yelling “USA, USA”.
Such displays may fire up angry conservatives, but they are also in danger of repelling voters in the centre. Republicans ignore tea-partiers at their peril. Embracing them may be no less dangerous.