Blaming the Tea Party

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
April 8 2011 1:24 PM

Blaming the Tea Party

In his floor speech today, Harry Reid said what Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin said yesterday: the Tea Party is responsible for the budget impasse. The Tea Party is demanding those social policy riders in the CR.

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David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

The Tea Party, of course, is composed of lots and lots of people. It's not the Tea Party, really, but long-standing social conservative groups that have campaigned for Congress to keep the Planned Parenthood rider. It wasn't new Tea Party members of Congress who fight on this -- it was Mike Pence who introduced it and Chris Smith who has been shepherding the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Bill . Both are veteran members of Congress; Smith is unpredictable, and voted for cap and trade. And on Hardball yesterday, Tea Party Patriots co-director Mark Meckler said, after some prodding, that his members were not going to the mat on Planned Parenthood.

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MATTHEWS: Where`s the Tea Party on Planned Parenthood?

MATTHEWS: Can you answer a question?

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Did you go to Michele Bachmann school? I asked for a simple question.

MATTHEWS: Will you settle for the $100 billion --

MATTHEWS: -- if you don`t go with these other riders?

MATTHEWS: OK, does your membership tell you they care about abortion rights or birth control, even?

MATTHEWS: So you have no additional demands beyond those.

So why blame the Tea Party?

1) Polls say they can. Polling on abortion rights is tricky. There's no universal knowledge out there about the Hyde Amendment; there are people who assume funds for Planned Parenthood fund abortions. And unrestricted abortion remains unpopular, as does the idea of taxpayers footing the bill for it. In 2010, as in 2009, more Americans said they were "pro-life" than "pro-choice." Now, Democrats have been winning in states when they attack especially draconian abortion bans. But the issue is tough to summarize quickly. And the Tea Party is less popular than pro-life politics. Polling cited by Chuck Schumer finds that the Tea Party has fallen in popularity since it started, its favorable rating sitting in the 30s now. A new Pew Research poll has the percentage of people who agree with the Tea Party -- a stupid question but what can you do -- dropping from 27 to 22 percent.

2) Tea Party members are social conservatives. Yes, their leaders like Meckler and Dick Armey et al are not obsessed with social issues. But the activists are. There's a lot of polling on this, the best coming from the Public Religion Research Institute.

Tea Party members are mostly social conservatives, not libertarians on social issues. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, and less than 1-in-5 (18 percent) support allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry.

No one can reasonably argue that the 2010 election was fought over abortion laws. So maybe the concept of "shutting down the government over funding Planned Parenthood" isn't a surefire winner for Democrats. The concept that "you voted for Republicans to fix things, and they're shutting down government over Planned Parenthood because the Tea Party said to" is much better for Democrats.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.