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Will the Tea Party Help Re-Elect Obama?

How will the GOP presidential primary torpedo the party’s 2012 prospects?

June 1, 2011

How will the GOP presidential primary torpedo the party's 2012 prospects?

Although it seemed unfathomable to Obama supporters at the time, the grueling, nail-biting Democratic presidential primary of early 2008 made Barack Obama a stronger candidate and ultimately helped him prevail over John McCain.

The drawn-out primary contest against Hillary Clinton made Obama a better campaigner, forced his team to become more aggressive in combating attacks, allowed him to raise more money, elevated his national stature and revealed his weaknesses with white, working-class voters early in his campaign. While cleavages emerged among factions of the Democratic base, such rifts were ultimately subsumed by the party’s overriding desire to retake the White House. In short, the 2008 Democratic presidential primary strengthened the party by enabling it to successfully come to terms with its internal divisions and by making Obama a stronger general-election candidate.

By all indications, it appears the 2012 Republican presidential primary will have precisely the opposite effect on the GOP, thanks largely to the implacable, compromise-averse Tea Party. While the Republican Party successfully co-opted the diffuse anti-government movement in the 2010 midterm elections, signs are emerging that the ad-hoc Tea Party-GOP alliance is becoming increasingly strained.

Fissures began emerging during the wrangling over the 2011 budget earlier this year. While Republican leaders promised during the 2010 midterm campaign to cut $100 billion in spending, they succeeded in trimming only $38 billion, much to the dismay of the Tea Party activists who knocked on doors and made phone calls on behalf of GOP candidates last year.

Additional strains are coming to the fore over the need to raise the U.S. debt ceiling. For example, in an April meeting between Tea Party leaders and Speaker of the House John Boehner, the Republican leader conceded that the GOP would eventually raise the debt ceiling. Seemingly unaware that failure to do so would result in economic catastrophe, the attendees were apoplectic, with one calling for a primary campaign against Mr. Boehner in 2012.

As University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato recently told Reuters, the Tea Party is “not out to rebuild the Republican Party. They are out to take over the Republican Party and make it more like the Tea Party.”

This bodes ill for the Republican Party’s prospects in 2012. Indeed, more than eight months before the Iowa caucuses, the Tea Party has already done a disservice to the GOP by weakening the party’s presidential bench. It is likely that Mike Huckabee and Mitch Daniels, both of whom have had their conservative bona fides questioned, opted out of running in part because they concluded the Tea Party’s demands would be too great to bear.

For those candidates who have tossed their hat into the ring for the Republican nomination, it is virtually certain that the Tea Party will drag them too far to the right to be competitive against President Obama, who has the luxury of staking out the middle of the political spectrum since he isn’t facing a primary challenge.

This dynamic is already evident in the conservative firestorm that greeted Newt Gingrich’s criticism of Paul Ryan’s proposal to gut Medicare. While the plan is manifestly unpopular among the general public — indeed, it is so reviled that it contributed directly to the recent defeat of the Republican candidate in New York’s conservative 26th district — it is viewed as gospel by the Tea Party. As a result of the ensuing uproar, Mr. Gingrich promptly apologized to Mr. Ryan for his apostasy and is now defending the plan against its Democratic critics.

The episode sends a clear signal to other Republican contenders about the dangers of falling out of line. It also demonstrates that, thanks largely to the Tea Party, the GOP is effectively chained to the deeply unpopular Medicare cuts contained in the Ryan budget — which could cost the party the presidency.

The GOP’s steady march into the ideological hinterlands is further evidenced by the presidential contenders’ numerous policy flip-flops, such as Tim Pawlenty’s comical repentance for having supported a cap-and-trade scheme to combat climate change while governor of Minnesota. Another laughable example is Mitt Romney’s nonsensical denunciation of the individual mandate at the core of President Obama’s healthcare overhaul — despite the fact that the healthcare reform bill Romney passed as governor of Massachusetts also contained a similar provision.

The reason for this rightward shift is simple: These contenders need the Tea Party’s votes. If Republican candidates refuse to toe the line, it is increasingly likely the Tea Party will torpedo the GOP’s chances by launching a third-party bid that would siphon votes from the Republican nominee in the general election. South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, a member of the Tea Party Caucus and the senator most closely aligned with the movement, recently affirmed this remains a distinct possibility.

Consider also that a spokesman for FreedomWorks, an organization closely allied with the Tea Party, fired a shot across the bow by recently telling The Hill that “we don’t care about Republicans getting elected. We want fiscal conservatives to get elected, and that’s going to be a messy process.”

This is likely more than mere bluster. The Tea Party is deeply skeptical of the Republican Party, particularly given the spending spree the GOP rubber-stamped under the Bush administration. While it was willing to give the Republicans a chance at redemption in 2010, all bets are off if the Tea Party feels it has been spurned. Indeed, some congressional Republicans are already fretting about the prospect of a Ross Perot-like third-party candidacy.

In short, contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s not the quality of the candidates that poses the greatest threat to the GOP’s chances in 2012. The party’s top-tier contenders — which include Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman — are certainly credible, experienced politicians who in theory could pose a stiff challenge to President Obama. Rather, it’s the civil war brewing within the Republican Party that threatens to do the most damage to the party’s presidential prospects. The Republican primary is likely to either exacerbate these divisions, resulting in a rift between the Tea Party and the GOP — or force the Republican nominee to move so far rightward as to be unelectable come November 2012.

When President Obama gives his victory speech the evening of November 6, 2012, he would be remiss if he didn’t thank the Tea Party for helping him become the first president since FDR to be re-elected while unemployment is over 8%.


It's not the quality of the candidates that poses the greatest threat to the GOP's chances — rather, it's the civil war brewing within the GOP that threatens to do the most damage.

The ad-hoc Tea Party-GOP alliance is becoming increasingly strained.

It is increasingly likely the Tea Party will torpedo the GOP's chances by launching a third-party bid.

The Tea Party will drag GOP contenders too far to the right to be competitive against President Obama.