An angry “Tea Party” movement that Republican leaders hope to harness to boost their party’s chances in the 2010 congressional midterm elections could also be a potential blow to GOP outreach to minorities — including Jewish voters.
But Republican leaders, too, are in the movement’s cross hairs, and some Jewish leaders worry that the movement could transcend traditional politics entirely and create an extremist surge that is threatening to all minorities.
“It’s not a danger at the moment, but it bears watching,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “We’ve seen this before, and it always carries with it the risk the militants and extremists really will get a foothold. All such manifestations are threatening to minorities.”
In a report last year, the ADL warned that the Tea Partiers are part of a broader trend that also includes resurgent “militias,” “birthers” and other extremists, bound together by “an intense strain of anti-government distrust and anger, colored by a streak of paranoia and belief in conspiracies.”
Politically, intensifying Republican efforts to co-opt the spreading populist movement mean the party is trying to ride a tiger it may not be able to control, some political scientists say.
“As long as the public face of the Tea Party is about fiscal issues such as spending, taxes and debt, then Republicans might gain more than they lose — assuming that the Tea Party leadership is willing to back GOP candidates,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.
That may be especially true in 2010, when public fury over high unemployment, taxes and Wall Street threaten Democratic control of Congress.
But the kind of unfocused rage expressed by Tea Party activists, along with extreme views on many social issues, could damage GOP prospects if the party gets too close to the surging movement, he said.
“Epithets and anger don’t make a governing philosophy,” Sabato said. The Tea Party movement and the Republicans who try to get close to it “will lose far more support than they’ll gain if the leadership can’t tame this kind of thing. It’s hard to control when there is no clearly defined national or even local leadership.”
And one of the biggest risks for the GOP involves minority voters, said American University political historian Allan Lichtman, author of “White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement.”
“This is bad news for Jewish Republicans,” Lichtman said. “The Tea Party movement hearkens back to the old anti-immigration movement, to the Ku Klux Klan, to the George Wallace movement in the 1960s. Lurking behind all of these was the idea of 100 percent ‘pure’ Americanism — and of taking America back from the ‘outsiders.’”
The presence of Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and vice presidential nominee, as a leader in the Tea Party movement — she was the keynoter at the recent Tea Party convention — is another potential problem for the GOP regarding outreach to Jews. Palin, with her penchant for playing up divisions between Northeast liberal intellectuals and the so-called real Americans in the red states, was widely seen as hurting GOP outreach to Jews and helping Barack Obama in garnering nearly 80 percent of the Jewish vote.
But Republican leaders reject the idea they are playing with fire.
“I don’t see how this is the least bit problematic for Jewish Republicans,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. Brooks said the Tea Party “agenda is almost exclusively economic — turning us away from this path of exponentially running up deficits and bankrupting the country. It’s not as if they’re talking about social or foreign policy issues.”
Brooks said a “bigger problem is the populism on the left, which is a bigger threat and challenge to the Jewish community.
But Jewish Democrats say many Tea Partiers are talking about the hot-button social issues — and that the more the Republicans cozy up to the movement, the more their prospects with Jewish voters will dim.
“A lot of these people claim [President Barack] Obama is not a U.S. citizen,” said Ira Forman, CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC). “Many don’t believe in global warming, and that we should teach creationism in public schools. Working with the Tea Partiers may give the Republicans some juice with parts of their base, but it’s not going to work with other parts of the electorate. And it’s not going to work with political independents — and with Jews.”
This week Republican leaders were dialing up their effort to make peace with wary Tea Party leaders — and find ways to channel the populist rage to increase their expected gains in this year’s congressional contests and lay the groundwork for their 2012 effort to send Obama back to Illinois.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele met with some 50 leaders of the movement on Tuesday, although many of those leaders have expressed wariness about joining up with any established political party.
This week the Politico reported on extensive outreach efforts by GOP leaders across the country, including “resource-sharing” agreements with local Tea Party groups and joint rallies.
Congressional candidates — incumbents and challengers alike — are adopting Tea Party themes, including fury over government bailouts of the financial industry, fears of higher taxes and hyperinflation and anger about big, intrusive government. And there is a retreat from the issues that seem to generate the greatest ire among the Tea Partiers, including immigration and health care reform — a retreat likely to reduce still further the possibility of congressional action in these areas.
Analysts point out that predicting the political impact of the Tea Party movement — including how it will affect Jewish voters — is difficult because of its lack of recognized leaders and cohesive themes, and because the movement is beset by a tug-of-war between those who want to focus primarily on economic issues and those focusing on a range of social issues.
There are also deep divisions on foreign policy questions, including Israel. “These movements tend to go back and forth between isolationism and extreme interventionism,” said political historian Lichtman. So far, U.S. policy toward Israel has not been a focus, he said — but it could be in the future.
“There appears to be considerable variation among the Tea Partiers so it’s a challenge to generalize,” said University of Florida political scientist Ken Wald. “Some are just the usual suspects — right-wingers and ‘Perotistas’ who complain mightily about the deficit but who had no trouble with running it up in Iraq. Some are simply racists who profess outrage that ‘their’ country has been taken from them and make dark threats about taking it back. Some are just Republicans who want to vent.”
And a “not insignificant proportion are ‘Christian Nation’ advocates who believe, in the unintentionally hilarious phrase on a placard wielded by one of them, that they are ‘tea bagging for Jesus,’” Wald said. Teabagging is a slang term for a sexual act. “Whatever the mix, this kind of rhetoric will certainly make Jews uneasy and it will taint the Republicans if they get too close to it.”
Some local Tea Party groups have forged coalitions with anti-government right-wing “militias.” On his Web site, one self-proclaimed Tea Party leader, Dale Robertson, lays down “non-negotiable core beliefs” for the movement including these: “gun ownership is sacred,” and “Yes, we are a Christian nation.” (Robertson also warns against any alliance with the Republicans).
Anti-Wall Street and anti-banker rhetoric has sometimes echoed traditional anti-Semitic conspiracy theories; opposition to illegal immigration within the Tea Party movement sometimes spills over into old-fashioned nativism.
“There’s an element of Know-Nothing-ism and isolationism that Jews have found scary in the past,” said Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn. “The question is, can the Republicans use some of the energy in this movement and package it in ways Jews don’t find scary?”
Kahn pointed out that the “Republican party is not 100 percent comfortable with this movement, either. But the Tea Partiers could be the reality they have to live with. They will try to make it more mainstream, and some of the Jewish Republicans will try to facilitate that.”
Lee Cowen is one of those Jewish Republicans. A political consultant who supported former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney in 2008, he predicted that the Tea Party movement will help his party this year, and maybe in 2012, when Obama is expected to seek a second term.
“Not only am I not concerned, I’m somewhat encouraged by it,” he said. “It is average citizens banding together to take a civic stand on things they believe in. My sense is that they’re mostly upset about taxes, spending and the economic issues people in our own community can really coalesce around.”
He likened the movement to “the tidal wave that hit the American political landscape in 1994. But the difference is that it’s happening a lot earlier this time around.”
Johns Hopkins political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg argued that for all the noise, the Tea Party movement may fade out as quickly as other populist surges.
“This is not unlike the Sagebrush Rebellion — which nobody remembers,” Ginsberg said, referring to the Reagan-era populist surge in western states. “These movements tend to make a lot of noise for a while and then die down because they don’t have an institutional base.”
For now, the GOP stands to gain from the current Tea Party surge “because the Republican Party is always desperate to recruit infantry soldiers,” Ginsberg said. “The anti-abortion people were great infantry activists for the Republicans; maybe the Tea Partiers will do the same.”
Jewish voters in general won’t be dramatically affected by the Tea Party movement “because most of them already vote Democratic,” Ginsberg said. n