Why The Tea Party Can Help The Republican Brand

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According to the emails I get every day from the Democratic National Committee, the Tea Party movement is a Democratic gold mine. It has helped to nominate unpopular Republicans, like Sharon Angle in Nevada, and it has split conservative vote in districts like New York-23, allowing Democrats to win even when they should not. It is also an unruly bunch, which can be defined as much by its own fringes and funny signs, with sometimes revolutionary and incendiary overtones, as by its core identity as a group of people fed up with government spending and rising deficits. “It could be the difference between getting the majority or not,” the Cook Political Report’s Jennifer Duffy tells the New York Times, reflecting this conventional wisdom, based on an analysis of individual races.

But that may only be part of the story. To see the other side, I would turn your attention to the Wall Street Journal today which finds a couple facts about the Republican Party worth highlighting. The WSJ/NBC poll finds that voters are just as likely to see the Tea Party as an independent movement as part of the Republican Party, but then this is one of those polling questions where the factual answer is probably “Neither and Both.” The next question is more interesting. When asked if Republicans will return to the policies of George W. Bush or “have different ideas” on economic matters if they retake control of Congress, the nation shows little doubt that the party is changing. Fifty-eight percent say Republicans will have different ideas, while 35 percent say Republicans will return to Bush policies. This is a clear sign of the rebirth of the Republican brand, despite the fact that much of the Congressional leadership in the Republican Party remains the same as during the reign of George W. Bush.

So why the great shift in perception? At least part of the credit goes to the DNC emails which have done what they could to rebrand the Republican Party as an entirely new entity in the image of the Tea Party. I first heard this idea last week, in a conversation with Bill Galston, a former Clinton Administration policy adviser who now works at Brookings. His argument was that all the noise around the Tea Party may be having the effect of making credible the argument that the Republican Party was becoming something different, hurting the Obama Administration’s effort to paint Republican policies as a return to George W. Bush. “The administration’s ability to make that argument has been weakened by the very vociferous changes that have happened in the Republican Party,” said Galston.

In this view, the Tea Parties have more in common with Barry Goldwater than H. Ross Perot. They are an intra-party reformist cause, at a time when the nation desperately wants reform. In a midterm cycle, where the choice is between change or the same, it may not matter so much that many of the reforms the Tea Party seeks–like major revisions to entitlements–are not very popular. In other words, the silly campaign rally signs and DNC oppo may matter less than the fact that Tea Partiers are shaking up the Republican Party, which is good for the Republican brand.