Is the Tea Party Over?

Article excerpt

Byline: Joe Scarborough

The anti-Obama anger that helped fuel the 'Massachusetts miracle' is now threatening to tear the movement apart.

As the election results began reaching the White House, the young president found himself shaken. How could this unknown Republican win election in one of the last great bastions of progressive politics? How could it be that not so long before, it was the president's own party that had been carried to power by a wave of public discontent similar to the one that now threatened to destroy his ambitious health-care plans?

Those questions surely haunted Bill Clinton throughout the long night of Nov. 8, 1994, when the same Minnesota voters who had given the 42nd president a landslide victory in 1992 decided to send a hard-charging conservative named Rod Grams to the U.S. Senate just two years later. Scores of Republicans across the country shared Grams's good political fortune by promising--like Massachusetts miracle man Scott Brown--to stop a White House that voters believed to be too liberal, too out of touch, and too obsessed with Washington-run health care.

The political coalition that carried Republicans to victory over Clinton's Democratic Party was a collection of restless voters inspired by one of the most mercurial presidential campaigns in U.S. history. H. Ross Perot's "United We Stand" organization was formed as a result of the Texas billionaire's 1992 campaign. The quirky populist cobbled together an unlikely confederation of blue-collar workers, disaffected union members, devout Christians, gun-rights activists, talk-radio fans, retired military veterans, pro-life families, nervous deficit hawks, aging John Birchers, and an eclectic assortment of disaffected voters who saw the federal government as the enemy.

While reporting on last summer's health-care town-hall meetings, I recognized many of those familiar faces in the crowds. Among the protesters were veterans, deeply suspicious of the young liberal president and embittered, ironically, by Congress's failure to keep its promise to give them government-run health care for life. Also in attendance were gun-rights activists, who believed that their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms was being put at risk by Barack Obama. And in those throngs I also saw the faces of talk-show fans, pushed into action by the apocalyptic warnings of personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Those two right-wing talkers had spent the past year telling listeners that the Democratic president was a racist who somehow managed to find the time also to be a Nazi and a communist.

But if the tea-party protests produced their share of histrionics from the right, they also brought out the worst in progressive elites. As the grassroots movement was gaining traction across America, liberal columnists and commentators ridiculed the new political movement as a collection of racists, reactionaries, and uneducated buffoons. Instead of recognizing these nationwide protests for what they were--a potent sign of public discontent--too many liberals became more contemptuous as the tea-party movement grew. On ABC's This Week, The Nation's editor Katrina vanden Heuvel dismissed the movement's members as clueless "teabaggers," even as tea-party members were skillfully organizing a winning Senate campaign in Massachusetts.

A few Democrats understood the importance of the tea-party groups long before the Obama White House or its allies in the media. San Francisco's mayor, Gavin Newsom, issued a warning to fellow Democrats before Martha Coakley's loss in Massachusetts. …