Tea party agenda may be ascendant on Hill, but not on Main Street

Support for the tea party among Americans has slipped to 22 percent, a Gallup poll shows. Even as tea party politics (and a possible government shutdown) are center stage in Congress, the survey reflects public dissatisfaction with the tea party's push for conflict over compromise.

By , Correspondent

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    People stand for the national anthem at the Tea Party Patriots 'Exempt America from Obamacare' rally on the west lawn of the US Capitol in Washington, Sept. 10, 2013. A new gallup poll released Thursday indicates that 22 percent of Americans support the tea party.
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If a new Gallup poll is to be trusted, tea party fatigue has firmly set in among the American public. 

The survey, released Thursday, indicates that 22 percent of Americans support the tea party, which anchors the conservative wing of the GOP. The number marks a 10 percentage point drop from the movement’s peak in the wake of the Republican Party’s 2010 takeover of the House of Representatives.

Whether it is tea party loyalists’ relentless drive to upend President Obama’s health-care initiative, or, more generally, the near-constant intraparty bickering that has divided the Republican Party, the numbers reflect relatively high public dissatisfaction with the tea party's push for conflict over compromise.

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Of course, Congress is not scoring much better in polls these days, and its reviews provide a view of lawmakers’ performances across the political spectrum.

But it appears there’s something to this latest Gallup poll, conducted Sept. 5-8.

“The poll suggests that the partnership between the Tea Party and the Republican Party may be waning,” writes Lydia Saad, a senior editor at Gallup. “Although some of the Tea Party’s most visible representatives in politics today are associated with the Republican Party, and while rank-and-file Republicans are more likely to call themselves supporters than opponents of the Tea Party movement – a far greater number identify as neither.”

For so long, Washington has been plagued by gridlock, delay, and distraction. Liberals blame the tea party for its role. So, apparently, do many Republican Party stalwarts, including Arizona Sen. John McCain (R). Just this week Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, the tea party darling, occupied 21 hours of uninterrupted floor time in a faux filibuster of the president’s health-care plan, known as the Affordable Care Act. He did so even though his stand had no legislative ramifications and was against the wishes of his Republican colleagues. Senator McCain and others took him to task publicly for the display.

Score one, perhaps, for Senator Cruz as he raises his national profile and woos members of the conservative base – think of his "filibuster" as a grand gesture to caucus and primary voters in Iowa and New Hampshire in advance of a likely 2016 presidential run. But Cruz might gain personal points at the expense of his party’s public review, and with the latest survey, it appears the public, too, has begun to tire of this confrontational approach, a tea party hallmark.

“The discomfort he has created in the Republican caucus is merely emblematic of the ambivalence national Republicans feel toward the movement,” Ms. Saad writes.

Just 38 percent of Republicans polled said they back the tea party. That’s down from 65 percent in November 2010, according to Gallup.

Similarly, the poll notes that “just as Republicans are mixed in their views of the Tea Party, Tea Party supporters themselves have mixed views about the Republican Party.”

A slight majority of tea partyers polled, 55 percent, offered a favorable review of the GOP, compared with 43 percent who had an unfavorable view. Republicans, by contrast, rated the establishment party more favorably, with 80 percent supporting it and 19 percent giving it unfavorable marks. (It's worth noting that the poll was taken before Cruz's theatrical display this week, so it's hard to know if the media attention paid to him would change tea party sentiment toward the Republican Party or vice versa. Gallup, though, is asserting a connection between Cruz-like tactics common to many who share his beliefs and the public's growing dissatisfaction with the tea party generally.)

So who stands to benefit from all this strife? Some believe establishment Republicans are missing the mark if they think the tea party’s influence is on the wane or that liberals are getting a boost from the seeming disarray within the GOP – no matter what the poll numbers say. They see individuals such as Cruz as standing for principles advocated by the grass roots, rather than kowtowing to the rules of decorum in Washington.

“A little disruption of the status quo in Washington seems like the only reasonable thing to do, and We the People have been populating Congress with a growing group of principle [sic] leaders who are committed to fighting for us no matter how many feathers they ruffle in the process,” writes Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, on the Fox News website. “So now it’s Them versus Us, and the grassroots are proud to stand with the good guys, unpopular as they may be inside the Beltway.”

Others see dissent as a thin guise for boosting personal brands at the expense of party unity in a closely divided Washington, according to The New York Times.

“I love their vigor and their spirit,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma, referring to the tea party Republicans who are butting heads with party leaders. “But to be told we’re not listening by somebody who does not listen is disconcerting.”

The New York Times article notes that several senators see grass-roots enthusiasm as a big bust if the party can’t win elections come November.

So Gallup might be recording a tea party weariness, but Democrats, in particular, must be watching the friction on the other side of the aisle with rapt attention – and probably some measure of glee. That's because, whether the conventional wisdom dictates that the tea party is flailing or resurgent, the mere distraction of tea party members' fight serves to reinforce a perception that Republicans can’t find a point of consensus from which to govern.

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