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Charlie Sykes: Sykes Writes

The Tea Party's Moment

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The president who famously embraced the “Occupy” movement, closed his re-election campaign this weekend by sneering at the Tea Party.

After failing to mention the Tea Party by name on the stump in 2012, President Barack Obama mentioned the movement during at least five stump speeches on Thursday and Friday.

Noted Politico:  At three events Thursday and two on Friday, Obama said that Romney is “pledging to rubber-stamp the tea party agenda in Congress.”

“That’s not change,” he added at a high school gymnasium here. “That’s what we need to change.”

Perhaps this explains the president’s comment to admirers that “voting “is the best revenge.” He might have been referring to the Tea Party, since they have obviously been much on his mind.

And understandably so.

From the beginning, Democrats have reacted with a mixture of fear and loathing, perhaps best captured in the 2009 rant by the chairman of the Wisconsin Democrat Party, Mike Tate, who called taxpayers who attended a peaceful rally at Milwaukee’s lakefront  an “extremist element” who “don't want clean air and water” and don't understand how the American government, economy and capitalism work." (For good measure, he went on to compare them to “red-baiting McCartyhyites to the Know-Nothings and the KKK.”

In fact, the Tea Party was a citizen movement that coalesced in response to an unprecedented power grab by the central government. In other words, it was quintessentially American -- and precisely the sort of dissent that the left so often (and insincerely) has claimed to cherish.

But flush with victory and determined to demonize the movement, the left refused to understand how the ground was shifting. The dismissal of the movement meant that the left never grasped the nature of the opposition or the threat it posed.

The president’s comments suggest they still don't.

Ironically enough, Obama’s disdain for the movement is one of the reasons that he is limping toward the finish line, caught in a jump ball contest to save his presidency.  But his belated shout-out is also a backhanded recognition of the extraordinary success of the movement in shifting the political landscape and altering the political debate.

It is, after all, impossible to explain the conservative resurgence that catapulted the GOP to power in 2010 without taking into account the role of the Tea Party and its embrace by Republicans here.

Even while GOP elites remained stunned by the shellacking of 2008, the Tea Party arose in response to the massive stimulus spending binge and the deficits and debt that it entailed. In retrospect, they shaped the resurgent conservative critique of Obama and gave voice to a grass roots conservatism that was largely disenfranchised in 2008 with the pick of McCain. Above all, they insisted that Republicans actually stand for something.

A recent account of a Tea party rally in rally in Racine by James Wigderson noted that many of the voters attracted to the Tea Party had never been active in politics before.

“But after the election of Obama and the passage of the stimulus bill, they felt compelled to get involved. The Tea Party movement gave them a way to participate without necessarily joining a Republican establishment that had lost its way after the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

You would have thought an experienced community organizer would have seen what was happening. But he either didn’t see, or he simply didn’t care. (And why should he? “I won,” he once explained in his post-post-partisan fashion.)

Rather than taking the movement’s concern over spending/borrowing/taxing seriously, the president chose to change the subject: from economic recovery to "fairness." Just as he put his health care agenda ahead of fixing the economy; he chose to tack left and embrace class warfare rather than address the growing anxiety about the country's looming fiscal melt down.  The message of “Occupy” was far more congenial than the message of the folks who waved Gadsden flags.

Meanwhile, the Tea Party continued to spread and grow, drawing millions of citizen activists into the fray while changing the rules of American politics and the nature of the debate. 

No wonder the president is talking about “revenge.”




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