Authors dissect Tea Party movement

The Tea Party movement has become the talk of the 2010 election cycle, and three new books explore its origins and effect on the political process.

Kate Zernike’s “Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America” and Scott Rasmussen and Douglas Schoen’s “Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement is Fundamentally Remaking our Two-Party System” are likely to prompt vulnerable Democrats — and many moderate Republicans as well — to reach for the seltzer.

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And former GOP House Majority Leader Dick Armey’s (Texas) polemical tome, “Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto,” co-authored with Matt Kibbe, his right hand man at Freedom Works, will cause politicians and pundits alike to seriously consider their claim that the Tea Party “has evolved into one of the most potent political forces in American history.”

Certainly, it’s one of the biggest political stories since the 2008 election. From Kentucky to Colorado to Nevada to Utah to Alaska to Delaware, candidates backed by the Tea Party movement have captured Senate nominations from party-endorsed Republican candidates. 

All three books do a credible job of exploring the origins, philosophical underpinnings, tactics, leading figures of the movement and its sudden emergence as the latest of many grassroots protests appearing on the political landscape since the late 19th century.

Armey, main author of the 1994 “Contract with America” that helped Republicans gain control of the House for the first time in 40 years, and Kibbe, an economist and former House Budget Committee staffer, make clear they hope the Tea Party will change the direction of American politics. At the same time, they defend it from charges of extremist views.

“This is a movement stirred into action not out of partisan bitterness but as a reaction to a government that has grown too large, spends too much money, and is interfering with American’s freedom. The principles of individual liberty, fiscal responsibility, and constitutionally limited government are what define the Tea Party ethos,” they write.

Zernike, a national correspondent for The New York Times, and Rasmussen and Schoen, who are independent and Democratic public opinion pollsters and political commentators respectively, provide a more critical view.

There isn’t room for an extensive critique of either of their books, but Zernike’s, the shortest of the three volumes at only 232 pages, strikes me as the most informative and readable.

She goes beyond the angry rhetoric at Tea Party rallies to define “a political force powerful enough to confound a new administration and unhinge the Republican Party.”

Zernike describes Tea Partiers as “a mash-up of young and old,” predominantly white, more likely to have a college degree, socially conservative and generally well-off, but torn between distrust of President Obama and out-of-control government spending, and those who believe that government programs like Medicare and Social Security are worth the cost.

She concludes the Tea Party “may not have the numbers to replace or take over the Republican Party,” but it is nevertheless “on a path to become a powerful interest group in national politics – the MoveOn on the right … and as Matt Kibbe had envisioned FreedomWorks becoming.”

Rasmussen and Schoen come to much the same conclusion in their book, but raise an important additional concern about the Tea Party’s future.

“The Tea Party movement does underscore the degree to which anti-systemic, anti-Washington, pro-Constitution, fiscally conservative votes now are mobilized, organized, and able to make their voice heard in ways that are unprecedented and of potentially fundamental importance to the American political system,” they declare.

But they add, “The jury is still out as to whether the Tea Partiers will be able to integrate the disparate pieces of their movement to form a cohesive coalition. … They must establish a clear, well-articulated, and feasible set of goals that everyone in the movement can rally around. Only [then] will they be able to become something more advanced than disjointed groups of angered citizens trying to have their voices heard.”

A fourth book about the Tea Party, Joyce Lepore’s “The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History,” will be published in October.