Here comes Rand Paul and the Tea Party

After a year of proclaiming that the Tea Party, which about 18% of Americans claim to support, represents a popular uprising against President Obama, the Republican Party is now trying to stuff the tea back in the bag.

Following his gaffes on the Rachel Maddow Show, Tea Party favorite Rand Paul has been keeping a lower profile, but the damage has been done. Powerful Republicans and even the conservative American Enterprise Institute have gone out of their way to rebuke him.  Of course, he still boats a comfortable lead in the polls over his Democratic opponent.

Meanwhile, the GOP is trying to suppress Tea Party-backed candidates in other states.

Is the Tea Party more of a threat to the Republican establishment, or to the Democrats?

From Frank Rich’s assessment:

Unlike Scott Brown, whose Tea Party cred consisted mainly of opposition to the health care bill and a pickup truck, Paul is one of the movement’s card-carrying founding fathers. From the start, he openly defined himself as a Tea Party tribune, and its followers embraced him (and contributed to him) as their uncompromising avatar. Now, after months of debate about what this movement is and isn’t, Paul’s victory provides clear-cut answers.

The Tea Party is not merely an inchoate expression of a political mood, or an amorphous ragtag band of diverse elements, or a bipartisan cry of dissatisfaction with the supposed “government takeover” of health care. The Tea Party is a right-wing populist movement with a specific ideology. It resides in the aging white base of the Republican Party and wants to purge that party of leaders who veer from its dogma. But divisive as the Tea Party may be within the G.O.P., it’s hardly good news for President Obama and the Democrats either.

That’s because – and this is the central insight of Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” – during hard times, in the absence of a credible liberal alternative, right-wing populism flourishes and trumps “stay the course” (or “too big to fail”) centrism every time.  As long as Paul can call huge bailouts to corporations a liberal program (and exclude Medicare from his critiques of intrusive government), he’ll do well.

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