President Obama Tangles Democratic Message On The Tea Party

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The Democratic National Committee sends out dozens of messages a week to make the case that the Tea Party crowd is kooky. One of their recent videos posted on YouTube ended with the words “The Republican Tea Party 2010; Imagine These People Could Represent You.” But today, President Obama was asked about the Tea Party, and his response was a bit, shall we say, off the DNC message.

I think that America has a noble tradition of being helpfully skeptical about government. That’s — that’s — that’s in our DNA, right? I mean, we — we came in, because, you know, the folks over on the other side of the Atlantic had been oppressing folks without giving them representation, and so we’ve always had a healthy skepticism about government. And I think that’s a good thing. I think there’s also a noble tradition in the Republican and Democratic parties of saying that government should — should pay its way, that it shouldn’t get so big that we’re leaving debt to the next generation. All those things, I think, are healthy.

The problem that I’ve seen in the debate that’s been taking place — and in some of these Tea Party events — is I think they’re misidentifying sort of who the culprits are here. . . . [T]he challenge, I think, for the Tea Party movement is to identify specifically, what would you do? It’s not enough just to say, “Get control of spending.” I think it’s important for you to say, “You know, I’m willing to cut veterans’ benefits,” or, “I’m willing to cut Medicare or Social Security benefits,” or, “I’m willing to see these taxes go up.” What you can’t do — which is what I’ve been hearing a lot from the other side — is saying, “We’re going to control government spending. We’re going to propose $4 trillion of additional tax cuts,” and that magically somehow things are going to work.

Far from calling it kooky, Obama was describing the Tea Party as part of a noble tradition–albeit one that still had not developed a clear policy agenda. And it appears that Obama has been thinking along the same lines as former President Bill Clinton, who said on CBS’s Face The Nation that the tea party might yet turn out to be a bad thing for Democrats.

I’m not sure it’s going to be a good thing for Democrats yet. We don’t know. I think that, first of all, the tea party insurrection, if you will, that you see in these Republican primaries, reflects the feeling of a lot of Americans that they’re getting the shaft. That the people who caused these problems, first of all, the banks that were responsible for the financial meltdown, they’ve gotten well again. And everybody has got money again who is in that business, but ordinary people don’t.

This is the great unknown question of the Tea Party. Will it continue to spread into the political center, as a vehicle for channeling broadly held frustrations and anger into political power, or will it be relegated to the fringes of the Republican Party, while the furies find other modes of expression? The answer will probably not be clear until well into the 2012 campaign season.