The Tea Party is more than a year old. It began with Rick Santelli's famous rant against the Obama administration's housing policy on February 19, 2009. As Santelli predicted, that policy failed and the administration announced a new approach last week. It probably won't help either. But the Tea Party endures. It gained steam with rallies on Tax Day 2009, the town hall meetings protesting Obamacare last August, and the 9/12 march on Washington. The trajectory of the Tea Party is upward; the trajectory of the Democrats, downward. And the rising Tea Party tide is lifting Republican boats. The movement is the best thing to happen to the GOP in years. It contributes enthusiasm, cash, and principle to a disillusioned and demoralized party.

Do Democrats realize what an opportunity they missed by dismissing and denigrating the Tea Party? The Winston Group poll says 40 percent of self-identified Tea Partiers are independents and Democrats. The Gallup poll says the Tea Party leans right -- no surprise there -- but is "generally representative of the public at large" in demographic terms. The December NBC / Journal poll said the Tea Party was more popular than both the Republicans and Democrats. A recent Rasmussen poll says the Tea Party is slightly more popular than the president.

These numbers suggest the Tea Party is a broad-based, diverse group of citizens who are deeply concerned about deficits, debt, taxes, and the growing size and scope of the federal government. Like any movement, the Tea Parties attract some crazies. But are those crazies any more representative of the Tea Parties than the ultra-far-left, anti-Americans were of public sentiment against the war? Indeed, one could argue that there are far more Castro-lovers from the ANSWER coalition at antiwar marches than there are nutballs at Tea Parties. But Democrats and liberals remain convinced that they are witnessing the ghost of George Wallace and the resurgence of racist politics. This fixation leads them to impugn the Tea Partiers as Klansmen and racists and nuts.

Imagine what might have happened if Democrats had decided to take the Tea Party seriously in 2009. The Democrats might have moved to the center, adopting Bill Clinton's second-term strategy of balanced budgets, economic growth and globalization, and incremental, small-bore reforms on health care and education. They might have been able to retain the independents they held in 2006 and 2008 while dampening Republican fears that Obama wants to turn the country into Sweden. The economy would still be crummy. But, in this scenario, 2010 wouldn't look like the Democratic bloodbath it's shaping up to be.

The scenario is fantastic, of course. But why? The above paragraph, after all, describes our politics only a decade ago. The Democrats are supposedly the party of the people. The last half-decade of Republican governance was not in the Tea Party mold.

What has changed is unified Democratic control of government and a much more ideological, left-liberal Democratic party. The Net Roots-cutting edge blinded the Democrats to the Tea Party message. And the result is that, in Michael Barone's opinion, the Republican party may repeat its fantastic success of 1946.

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