SHEFFIELD: Sampling the Tea Party

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The recent Boston Tea Party event headlined by megastar Sarah Palin illustrated the classic problem for Republicans seeking to tap the movement’s enthusiasm without embracing its more radical elements.

Republicans want to keep the movement at arm’s length, yet they desperately need Tea Partiers to help them sweep to electoral victory in November. If they can’t figure out how to navigate this minefield, they run the risk of pushing the movement into the arms of spoiler independents, a la Ross Perot and Doug Hoffman. This balance can be accomplished, but Republican Party leaders are too occupied with infighting at party headquarters to tap into the Tea Party movement in a sophisticated way.

As various media outlets have pointed out, the Tea Party is full of amateurs, first-time activists and political hacks. Whether that’s the black-mustachioed, swastika-band wearing kid in the Boston Common dressed like Barack Obama-as-Hitler or the man in drag toting a suitcase of faux dope, it’s clear the movement isn’t ready for prime time.

Yet the virtue of this nascent activism is the new life it injects into what progressives had called a moribund ideology. Many of the folks who showed up at the Boston Tea Party rally were integral to the epic victory of Sen. Scott Brown, Massachusetts Republican. Mr. Brown ran on a platform of fiscal restraint, promising to vote against massive new government health care spending. His blue-collar populism was echoed by speakers at the Tea Party rally.

Some Tea Partiers were miffed that Mr. Brown chose to stay in Washington rather than revel with the grass roots on Boston’s most famous grassy yard. Another Republican who stayed away was Charlie Baker, the gubernatorial front-runner seeking to unseat Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat. True to his quirky persona, gadfly Republican candidate Christy Mihos hired an airplane to circle the rally trailing a banner sign touting “Chris’tea’ for governor.”

The only viable gubernatorial hopeful to show up was Timothy Cahill, the state treasurer and Democrat-turned-independent who is hoping to carve out a niche among voters angry over runaway government spending. Rather than dismissing the Tea Partiers as loony fringe elements, Mr. Cahill - who has snagged several former staffers from the McCain presidential camp - is taking a cautiously savvy approach. He showed up after Mrs. Palin spoke, thus distancing himself from some of her polarizing effects while still giving himself space to glad-hand potential supporters.

Mr. Cahill seems to think the Tea Party movement is more than off-key, patriotic crooners and corny colonial outfits. And the activists themselves are quick to point out that the Tea Party movement does not favor one party or the other.

“I’ll show you the knife wounds in my back from the Republican Party sometime,” radio host Mark Williams snarked to the Tea Party crowd.

A recent Gallup poll shows that 49 percent of Tea Party supporters are Republicans, 43 percent are independents and 8 percent are Democrats. This means Tea Partiers are ripe for the picking, and Republicans seem too timid to pluck.

Other figures show America’s broader political landscape is also ripe for change. The Pew Research Center reported that just 49 percent of voters said they would like to see their own congressional member re-elected this fall, and just 32 percent of respondents said they wanted most members of Congress re-elected. Republicans’ reluctance to work with a movement to capitalize on this anti-incumbent trend is puzzling.

Some of Mr. Brown’s and Mr. Baker’s resistance is understandable in a historically blue state like Massachusetts. What national Republican leaders need to do is sit down and systematically identify districts where Tea Partiers could play a vital role and craft a tailored strategy for tapping their energy while aggressively, yet diplomatically, dismissing the kookier portions of the movement.

Carrie Sheffield is a former Washington Times editorial board member and is a graduate student at Harvard Kennedy School.

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