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Obama's Secret Weapons: The Tea Partiers

Obama's Secret Weapons: The Tea Partiers

By Richard Reeves - March 16, 2010

LOS ANGELES -- The Republican Party of California met in convention last weekend and listened to five candidates for governor and United States senator in the state's June 8 primary election. They fell all over themselves trying to sound like tea partiers.

The Los Angeles Times reported it this way:

"Some ... have more money than others. Some are better known. Some are more in sync with their party's traditional values. But what all five have in common is a determination to tap what they see as public fury over the failures of government."

The candidates for governor are Meg Whitman, former chief executive of eBay (more money) and State Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner (much more money).

The candidates for senator are Carly Fiorina, former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard (more money), former Rep. Tom Campbell (more in sync) and Orange County Assemblyman Chuck DeVore (less money and out-of-sync).

"We are all members of the 'Had Enough' party," said Fiorina, who hopes to win the nomination to run against Sen. Barbara Boxer. DeVore, same ambition, promised to "rescue America." Poizner, who hopes to succeed retiring Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said he would send the National Guard and the California Highway Patrol to the border with Mexico to block illegal immigrants.

Assuming they have some understanding of history, the primary winners will undoubtedly moderate their views for the November elections against the Democratic candidates, Boxer and presumably former governor and current Attorney General Jerry Brown, so old he's new. But right now the opposition is all anger all the time. The convention in Santa Clara reminded me not of Republicans but of another candidate with more money, Ross Perot, when he ran for president in 1992 -- or perhaps, I should say, elected Bill Clinton in 1992.

Perot, same anger, different views, spent $65.4 million of his own money and got 19 percent of the vote that year. Exit polls indicated that his votes came from Republicans and Democrats in about equal numbers. But anyone who lived through that campaign had no doubt he wrecked President George H.W. Bush. Profiles of the Perot vote looked pretty tea party-like: with 20 percent of his votes coming from self-described liberals, 27 percent from self-described conservatives and 53 percent coming from self-described moderates. Economically, however, the majority of Perot voters (57 percent) were middle class, earning between $15,000 and $49,000 annually.

Clinton won that election with only 43 percent of the vote. Bush had 37 percent and Perot had his 19 percent. That 19 could be a magic number. Right now, self-proclaimed tea partiers account for about 19 percent of the electorate, at least in polls.

Ideologically, Perot was often scattershot and confusing, but he was not a tea partier. He was angry, a protectionist on trade and an anti-Washington budget-balancer. But he was also pro-choice and argued for gun control. Most important, he looked forward, while the tea partiers are looking backward. His most important difference with the folks who could be called his political descendants was a view of the Constitution.

Tea partiers, whether or not they have read it, see our founding document as a sacred text to be taken as literally as many on the religious right see the Bible. Perot, on the other hand said:

"Keep in mind our Constitution predates the Industrial Revolution. Our founders did not know about electricity, the train, telephones, radio, television, automobiles, airplanes, rockets, nuclear weapons, satellites or space exploration. There's a lot they didn't know about. It would be interesting to see what kind of document they'd draft today. Just keeping it frozen in time won't hack it."

Republican candidates, and not just here, must know they are playing with fire in trying to co-opt or assimilate the tea partiers. And as much as all this activity on the political right is energizing conservatives, they also have to realize that the end result could very well be the easy re-election of President Obama -- say, with 43 percent of the vote.

Copyright 2010, Universal UClick

Richard Reeves

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