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Morning Jay: The Uses and Abuses of the Tea Party

6:00 AM, Aug 10, 2011 • By JAY COST
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Being a Tea Partier for 95 percent or more of these people suggests not a political or even social group affiliation, but a state of mind, one that evokes the sentiments of the original Boston Tea Party: that the government does not reflect the will of the people, and that it is burdening them to take care of a privileged minority. For the original Boston Tea Partiers, the great government transgression was taxation; for today’s Tea Partiers, it is a mountain of debt that will have to be paid eventually.

The ambiguity of 95 percent of the Tea Party is what makes it an attractive target for the Democratic party and its friends in the mainstream media. There is no leader of the Tea Party. No building where the Tea Party meets. No set of rules and regulations that enumerates the privileges and responsibilities of its members. Thus, the "Tea Party" can be whatever the Democrats need it to be.

Were they a bunch of terrorists? Sure! Were they intransigent? Absolutely! As long as "they" stay relatively obscure, Democrats can ascribe almost any quality they want to them. On the other hand, if they start naming names, they're only going to prompt a retort from the accused, who will surely respond with talk of "Cut, Cap, and Balance," which polls extremely well. So, how does that advance their interests?

As a great example of this, check out this clip from ABC's This Week. At about the 1:30 mark, Christiane Amanpour says that Steve Rattner called Congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah an "economic terrorist," to which Rattner hurriedly responds "not the congressman personally..." Of course not! The charge is rhetorically useful only if its object is a vague, unidentifiable group that cannot respond with righteous indignation.

This is similar to Richard Nixon’s “silent majority,” one of the most ingenious rhetorical devices in modern political history. Once Nixon defined this group, he could put whatever words in their mouths he wanted. After all, it’s not like he identified Frank Thompson from down the street as part of the “silent majority,” so it really didn’t matter if Frank disagreed with Nixon or not.

However, there is a problem for Democrats with turning the Tea Party into the bogeyman. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is a fantastic movie because you do not see see the shark until you’re already well into the film, but eventually you see it. If you never did, the movie would have been forgotten long ago.

The Democrats are never going to be able to produce this terrible, villainous Tea Party for the world to behold. It will forever remain in the shadows, secretly making sure that nothing goes Obama’s way between now and Election Day. This makes for a very bad foil. There’s really no third act, no moment when Obama and the forces of light finally confront the Tea Party and its minions of darkness. Worse for the president, he does not get to square off against “the Tea Party” on the ballot. Instead, he will probably face Rick Perry or Mitt Romney, both of whom are living, breathing politicians with actual records, and no history of terrorism.

So yes, the Tea Party has become a red herring for the Democratic party and the liberals who dominate it, meant to distract the public from their own terrible record. Yet, as red herrings go, it is a pretty useless one – and a testimony to just how worried they are about next year.

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