Respecting the Tea Party

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In recent weeks, with the U.S. Senate Republican primary victories of Joe Miller in Alaska and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware — particularly the latter — there has been a feast of coverage and tongue-in-cheek humor by the political left. Personally, I have been taken aback not only by the amount of airtime devoted to O’Donnell’s past positions on sexual and religious issues, but also the sheer number of times her name has been mentioned. But I would stress that instead of having the intended effect of repelling the public from these candidates, it has made them the object both of sympathy and empathy. Consequently, this has rewarded them and other Tea Party-backed candidates with growing political and financial support.

In addition to the aforementioned races, Marco Rubio’s campaign for Senate in Florida and Carl Paladino’s for governor of New York have seen the Tea Party candidates’ poll numbers rise to within striking distance of, if not already surpassing, the leads of establishment candidates once thought to be invincible. And Democrats originally nursing solid leads in their Senate races, like O’Donnell’s opponent Chris Coons in Delaware and Richard Blumenthal in Connecticut, have watched their numbers dwindle daily. And this trend appears to be strengthening.

But criticism has not only come from Democrats. Republican strategist Karl Rove has been outspoken in questioning the ethical suitability and electability of O’Donnell, to the chagrin of many in his own party preaching unity going into November. And looking at some of the Republican senatorial candidates who’ve been ousted in primaries — Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah and Rep. Mike Castle in Delaware — all of whom have openly criticized their opponents’ Tea Party-backers, there are both hard feelings and some open wounds to be healed. All three have refused to endorse their party’s nominee, and Murkowski is actually running a write-in campaign against Miller and the Democratic nominee, Scott McAdams. But the Tea Party candidates don’t appear to have suffered a bit for the wear; in fact, they’ve generally prospered, with more and more G.O.P. party insiders and their allies in the media adopting and advancing their positions.

Certainly there are legal questions about O’Donnell’s finances which, though they will not be resolved prior to the November election, are enough to make a campaign manager wince; but those who raise those questions, regardless of their validity, are missing the point: public anger is trumping the integrity of the vehicle of that anger. In fact, many of the problems O’Donnell has had with her finances the public can relate to. In their minds, this is electability in its purest form.

There have been some on the Democratic side, arguably a bit late to this “party,” counseling caution about taking the powerful message of the Tea Party for granted. Vice President Joe Biden, interviewed recently on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show, said that he “wouldn’t sell short these candidates,” saying essentially that the criticism has resulted in a torrent of money being poured into races like the one for his old Senate seat in Delaware.

And former President Bill Clinton, speaking earlier in September to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, remarked, “In their purest form, the Tea Partiers are saying, ‘I’ve been let down by big business and big government. I’ve been let down because the big banks were bailed out but nobody helped me. And the government that bailed them out, they’re doing fine, they all have a job, they make their mortgage payments, have health care, send their kids to college. I want reform in both.'” Sage observations from the last president who oversaw a balanced Federal budget.

As in any political movement, there are fringe elements that embarrass and disgust. The Tea Party and its loose confederation of disparate groups are not immune from this. However, ascribing racism to the whole movement does nothing but cause it to dig in its heels and become defensive — thereby accomplishing nothing. The exposure and eradication of racism is a crucial and ongoing struggle in this country; but the ever-present danger of invoking the charge too often and too broadly threatens to water down its relevance. There are many within the Tea Party ranks who, like most Americans, believe in the civil discussion of ideas and policy. Engaging them seriously and trying to hear what many of their critics have disparagingly referred to as their “dog whistle” would be a good start, if only for purely political reasons.

Christopher Hartman is the author of “Advance Man: The Life and Times of Harry Hoagland”; editor of “Learn Earn and Return: My Life as a Computer Pioneer,” a memoir of Harlan Anderson, co-founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, and contributor to the Christian Science Monitor newspaper.