Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Ross Perot and the Tea Partiers

Ross Perot’s third-party presidential candidacy and the Tea Party movement have something important in common: they both succeeded in putting deficit-reduction at the center of the political agenda. I’ve speculated before on how that issue is likely to play differently in our politics than it did in the 1990s because the ideological dynamics are crucially different: the Tea Partiers largely are, and the Peroistas weren’t, part of the conservative movement and the Republican electoral coalition. Ron Rapoport (via Tom Schaller) preempts my gaseous observations with some hard facts:

“'Perot callers were slightly right of center on the liberal-conservative scale, but on specific issues they were not consistently conservative. They strongly favored abortion rights, national health insurance, and government controls on pollution, while strongly opposing affirmative action, gun control and the revocation of the death penalty.

“'But there were a set of issues important to Perot supporters on which they were more extreme than either Democrats or Republicans--economic nationalism, reform, and the budget. On these issues they saw the major parties as indistinguishable and largely indifferent. They staked out positions very different from where they perceived the major parties to stand.’”
Tea Partiers, however, have a welcoming ideological home in the Republican Party:

“In the New York Times survey, 54% of tea partiers rated the Republican Party favorably. Only 17% of Perot callers rated either party as “above average” or “outstanding” and 43% rated both parties as “below average,” or “poor” with 8% rating the Republicans as “above average” or “outstanding,” and 9% rating the Democrats as “outstanding” or “above average.” Sixty-nine percent rated the Republicans as “below average” or “poor,” with 64% saying the same about Democrats.”
Schaller draws out the electoral implications:

“One of the ironies of the tea "party" is that it is less of a party than the Perot movement was, and yet is more traditionally partisan--i.e., Republican--in its attitudes and preferences. If it is a danger or threat to the Republican Party it is thus a danger from within, not without. And if it is a threat to the Democratic Party it is because it readily mobilizes voters who ultimately are going to vote for Republicans (or more accurately, against Democrats), not third-party candidates.”
This shows how much the ideological landscape has changed since the early 1990s. The 1992 presidential election pitted a Republican moderate against a southern New Democrat and a centrist insurgent proclaiming that each major party candidate was too beholden to special interests to make good on his promise to govern from the center. With respect to the budget deficit, every presidential candidate was gravitating toward a grand compromise that combined tax increases with spending restraint. Ideologically, the Peroistas were amplifying centripetal forces. The transformation of our politics into a contest between ideologically disciplined parties started to become noticeable only with the Gingrich revolution in the 1994 election cycle.

The Tea Partiers are creatures of the Gingrich revolution. They’re amplifying centrifugal ideological forces by generating primary challenges moving Republican candidates to the right (e.g., driving Charlie Crist out of the Republican Party in favor of Marco Rubio) and by leaving Democrats little choice but to stand behind ObamaCare and other fiscally provocative policies. Neither party needed to embarrass itself by spinning fairy tales about a bipartisan deficit-reduction commission in 1992.

No comments: