Confession time has arrived. It was probably going to get out sooner or later. Yes, the rumor is true. I have actually attended a Tea Party rally … and on my own volition.
Well, it wasn’t a rally as such. And it wasn’t the Tea Party, just a lower-case tea party. The 3-year-old hostess didn’t much care about her guest’s political failings. As soon as Grampa Johnny agreed to put down the remote, he got invited to Eleanor’s tea party.
We didn’t discuss how to take back our country. We stuck with nonpartisan issues like who gets chocolate tea with raisins and who gets vanilla tea with Cheerios. Using our indoor voices, we enjoyed conduct clearly more civil than what you see in some adult town hall meetings across America.
Had Eleanor been more willing to discuss politics, I would have noted that the Tea Party is really starting to make a big splash these days, although not always for the right reasons. You could say the 2-year-old movement has officially arrived now, because its ratings in the polls have dropped as low as those suffered by both political parties. Last week’s CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll revealed that 32 percent of respondents view the Tea Party favorably and 47 percent see it unfavorably.
That unfavorable percentage is up (negatively, remember) four points from December and 21 points from January 2010, and it is virtually identical to the 48 percent unfavorable ratings of both the Democratic and Republican parties, CNN announced. So, congratulations Tea Party! Welcome to the world of widely despised politicians.
Rally cries are fizzling
What could account for this decline in popularity? One reason might be the stunning success of the Tea Party’s first enemy: the Troubled Asset Relief Program. It was the TARP that helped ignite the Tea Party movement back in 2009. But Americans learned last week that this dastardly $245 billion Wall Street bailout has now returned $251 billion in dividends to the government.
A rally cry has been shushed.
Another reason could be hypocrisy shown by several Tea Party types. The cut-spending bombers started taking minor flak in November 2009 when attendees at the first National Tea Party Convention were charged a registration fee of $558 (excluding hotel).
Not the austerity many of the grass-rooters had in mind.
And this year, ABC News reported on farm subsidies received by almost two dozen members of Congress, some of them champions of the Tea Party. U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher, a Republican and the pride of Frog Jump, Tenn., surely winces when asked about the $3 million his family received in farm subsidies from 1995 to 2009. Another Tea Partyer, U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., received $774,489 during the same period, according to a report from Environmental Work Group. U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., took in $180,000 between 1997 and 2009.
Apparently, “cut spending” is short for “stop spending on other folks.”
Another reason for the Tea Party decline might be Americans realizing that the loudest voices aren’t always the most logical. Dangling tea bags from your hat brim won’t make you a fiscal expert. As the Cut Spending Chorus increased its volume, a more subdued voice came from U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash. The Seattle congressman is a physician, and in a recent interview with the liberal blog thinkprogress.org, Dr. McDermott said this about cutting funds for the Women, Infants and Children program: “On two levels (the cuts are) wrong. One is they’re wrong morally. We need to take care of women and children and WIC is very important for children’s health and healthy babies and for healthy mothers.
“But on a second level it’s fiscally stupid, because if you don’t feed kids, if you don’t feed mothers and get them up to speed, they deliver a low birth-weight baby and then you spend hundreds of thousands of dollars dealing with it in the preemie units of hospitals.”
Maybe politically independent Americans are listening to messages like McDermott’s. That might explain why more of them are starting to rank Tea Party activists way down there with the Democrats and the Republicans.
John Laird is The Columbian’s editorial page editor. His column of personal opinion appears each Sunday. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.