The House of Representatives GOP has recently created a Tea Party Caucus, created by strong supporter Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), according to the Washington Post. Two dozen Tea Party activists and GOP Congressional members met in the Armed Services Committee room on Wednesday for its first meeting. The newly established caucus has been given the blessing of GOP House leaders, though Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) has not weighed in or joined. Bachman has vowed that the caucus is “not the mouthpiece for the movement,” the New York Times reports, but whether the caucus will create new legislation is still to be addressed.
Though the Tea Party enjoys its independent status, strong ties to conservative values have caused many Republicans to defend and frequently speak to Tea Party gatherings. Bachman, along with former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Fox personality Glenn Beck, was an early champion of the grassroots movement, calling for less federal government interference, opposing health care reform, the 2009 stimulus spending bill, and President Obama’s legislative initiatives. Political analysts have long speculated that the Tea Party could become a political party. Though strenuously opposed to Democratic policies, Republicans haven’t always been embraced by all movement members.
However, some Republicans are now running in the other direction, as legislators from Texas to Maryland have signed up for the caucus. As reported by TIME, its founding couldn’t have come at a worse PR time, either; when the NAACP has recently criticized the movement for protecting “racist elements” in the party, Tea Party Express spokesman Mark Williams, who once branded President Obama an “Indonesia Muslim turned welfare thug and racist in chief” responded in a controversial blog post that can only be described as expressing the worst racial stereotypes in what one supposes was meant to be satire. The resulting furor led the National Tea Party Federation to eject Williams’ organization in an effort to put out the fire.
The very nature of a grassroots effort means that extreme voices may be heard, and the great risk in organizing said movements means drawing an association between the worst elements and one’s own motivations. This kind of controversy can cause problems for more established political leaders; caucus members may have a constituency that is more than comfortable with the Tea Party and will take the criticism by the NAACP with a grain of salt. But can the same be said of non-caucus GOP members?
As congressional members gear up for mid-term elections, accusations of institutional racism within the movement will need to be forcefully rebutted by GOP members who have tied their flag to the Tea Party mast. That defense may spill over into more hotly contested races, races that have leaned more GOP this term as independents consider casting a disapproving vote against the Democratic majority. While the 24-hour news cycle can necessarily mean a story will die out, it is also possible that ongoing controversy can be strung along just long enough to maintain legs throughout an election, like the 2008 Mark Foley scandal.
As most third-party movements and politicians like Ross Perot, Ron Paul, and Cynthia Williams have found, their least-popular views and those of their followers can become a political albatross. Some formerly “independent” supporters, and, as some House GOP leaders may find, the now widely broadcast ties between the grassroots and the Washington political establishment have now been formally forged. There’s no way to unring that bell, and’ in voters’ minds, the Tea Party and the GOP may well now be considered one and the same, damaging the credibility of both brands in the process.
Dana Milbank, “Putting the ‘tea’ in GOP? “, Washington Post
Janie Lorber, “Republicans Form Caucus for Tea Party in the House” New York Times
Perry Bacon Jr., “New GOP caucus defends tea party, says it is not racist” Washington Post
Alex Altman, “Racism Rift Highlights Dilemma: Who Speaks for the Tea Party?” TIME