Tea Party Has Republicans Running Scared

In the months after Bill Clinton received the same kind of electoral drubbing meted out to Barack Obama in November, he used to measure his political standing by the number of Republicans getting ready to run against him.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton seen speaking during the inaugural Rural Summit in Washington, DC
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Former U.S. President Bill Clinton seen speaking during the inaugural Rural Summit in Washington, DC

By early March in 1994, three senators, a past and serving governor and other conservative activists had already declared that they were seeking the Republican nomination for the 1996 presidential poll, then nearly two years away.

His opponents were multiplying for obvious reasons, according to Taylor Branch’s book, The Clinton Tapes, compiled from interviews in office with the then president.

Mr Clinton’s stock was so low that each challenger saw the Republican nomination as tantamount to winning the election.

If Mr Obama were to use the same barometer as Mr Clinton used midway through his first term, then the US president might feel he is serenely coasting towards victory in the 2012 poll.

Like Mr Clinton, Mr Obama’s Democrats were on the receiving end of a defeat of historic dimensions at the midterm congressional elections. But the field so far arrayed against him is nothing like the one that was rolled out against Mr Clinton.

The array of Republicans clustered at the starting gate and mulling joining the 2012 race are grappling with issues that usually confront putative challengers. They will need to raise a ton of money, for starters.

The Republicans have not forgotten that while Mr Obama offered voters hope and change, he raised so much money that he had double the funds of his opponent, John McCain, to sell his uplifting message.

But the biggest wild card are the party’s new kingmakers, the motley group of enraged conservatives known collectively as the Tea Party.

Back in the 1990s, Mr Clinton told his diarist that senior Republicans were terrified of the party’s base and constantly buckled in front of it, even though they made up only 20 percent of the overall electorate.

If Republican leaders were scared of the base then, they must be petrified now. The Tea Party had a taste of power before last year’s election, when their activists were pivotal in deciding the winner of numerous Republican primaries.

They show every sign of maintaining the rage they generated last year. Already, they are plotting to replace two senior sitting senators, Richard Lugar of Indiana and Orrin Hatch of Utah.

They also remain militantly opposed to tax increases of any kind to balance the budget and are clamouring to undo Mr Obama’s health reforms. It is no surprise that so few Republicans have so far formally declared that they are running in 2012.

The newly conservative base has changed the calculations for them.

The potential list of candidates is long, including Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, and five serving or past governors, Mitt Romney (Massachusetts), Tim Pawlenty (Minnesota), Sarah Palin (Alaska), Jon Huntsman (Utah) and Haley Barbour (Mississippi).

But at a gathering of conservative activists in Iowa on the weekend, it was Michele Bachmann, the Tea Party favourite, who generated the most enthusiasm.

Ms Bachmann adopts a hard line against the Obama administration on every front, on the budget, on social issues such as abortion and healthcare, and has charisma to boot.

She is dismissive of the efforts of traditional mainstream Republicans to focus on Mr Obama’s chief weakness, the economy. Conservatism, she insists, is a package which cannot be picked apart.

“Social conservatism is fiscal conservatism,” she told the enthusiastic crowd in Iowa.

The Tea Party’s power means that any potential challenger will have to cut their cloth accordingly to win the Republican nomination.

But what appeals to the narrowing Republican base is likely to turn off large numbers of independent voters and mobilise a higher turnout for the Democrats.

Such a scenario also poses problems for Mr Obama. He is the frontrunner at this early stage but mainly because there is no candidate who has emerged who can compete with him.

Few of Mr Obama’s strategists will be happy that he is favourite, however, merely because all his opponents seem weak.