Conservative groups' mounting attacks against Planned Parenthood are beginning to expose rifts within the tea party movement that could grow more pronounced as Congress nears a potential government shutdown April 8.
Earlier this month, the Susan B. Anthony List, an antiabortion group, bought TV ads in support of some tea party congressmen who voted to cut all federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
But Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) said the Senate would block all such efforts, and he got a measure of support from Sen. Scott Brown (R) of Massachusetts, whose 2009 victory marked the rising tide of tea party clout. Cutting all federal funding for family planning was "going too far," Senator Brown said, though he didn't mention Planned Parenthood by name.
On one hand, the bid to slash funding for Planned Parenthood, the nation's top abortion provider, can be seen as an affirmation of the tea party's fiscally conservative, small-government credentials.
Yet Brown's comments suggest that the social issues behind Planned Parenthood are perhaps a stronger motive for some Republicans. Funding for Planned Parenthood, after all, is a negligible part of the deficit compared with military spending or entitlement programs, and federal funds cannot be used for the organization's abortion-related activities.
With the specter of a government shutdown looming, all eyes are on the 87 freshmen House Republicans most closely associated with the tea party movement. The position they take on defunding Planned Parenthood, in particular, could offer insight into a fundamental question: How do social issues such as abortion and gay marriage – which motivated the "religious right" and helped define the Republican Party in the past – fit into the tea party worldview?
"It's a watershed moment," says Angie Maxwell, a political scientist at the University of Arkansas who studies tea party demographics. She suggests that the topic will test whether the movement has the desire or ability to absorb social issues into into its identity without becoming consumed by them.
For some tea party members, defunding Planned Parenthood "is the perfect thing to push for, because it shows fiscal conservatism, and it's also not funding one of the social issues that you so adamantly want control over," adds Professor Maxwell. "But it's also where it gets complicated for tea party members: If you want government off your back financially, you can't also want [it] on your backs controlling social issues. That's the contradiction that has to be balanced."
Social issues 'beside the point'?
The initial energy of the tea-party movement came wrapped in the imagery of libertarianism, the ubiquitous "Don't Tread on Me" flag suggesting that adherents basically wanted government out of their lives and wallet. Tackling social issues for political benefit is anathema to this tea party vision.
"Social issues may matter to particular individuals, but at the end of the day, the movement should be agnostic about it," tea party activist Ryan Hecker, the creator of the crowdsourced Contract From America platform, told The New York Times last year. "This is a movement that rose largely because of the Republican Party failing to deliver on being representative of the economic conservative ideology. To include social issues would be beside the point.”
A February survey by the Pew Research Center offers insight into Mr. Hecker's comments. While social conservatives generally support the tea party, the reverse is not always true. "Many people who support the tea party are unfamiliar with or uncertain about the religious right," write Scott Clement and John Green, authors of the Pew study, "The Tea Party, Religion and Social Issues."
"Forty-six percent of tea party supporters said they hadn't heard of or had no opinion on the religious right," they write.
An unscientific survey by the Hot Air website in November gives further clues about the priorities of core tea party supporters: 72 percent of respondents (all self-described tea partyers, conservatives, or libertarians) said they would support fiscal conservatism even if it led to a more socially liberal culture.
Similarly, a new Pew poll suggests Mitt Romney, a fiscally conservative but socially moderate Republican, polls better among tea party supporters than any other GOP presidential candidate, with 24 percent backing.
How tea partyers and social conservatives overlap
But since the election, the tea party message has been transformed both from the inside and outside, with more faith groups using tea party-type language, and some groups like Texas-based TeaParty.org and the Iowa Tea Party bucking tea party traditions by embracing social issues as part of their stated agendas.
Critics say Republican targeting of Planned Parenthood shows that the tea party is just a new incarnation of the traditional "values" driven Republican.
In truth, the resonance of issues like Planned Parenthood might simply show the demographic overlap that exists between social conservatives and the tea partyers, according to a survey by the Diane D. Blair Center of Southern Politics and Society in Fayetteville, Ark.
Some 85 percent of members of tea party groups are self-identified Christians, 37 percent of whom are Biblical literalists, according to the survey. Moreover, 24 percent of members of tea party groups say that abortions should be available to all women as a choice, compared with 41 percent of non-tea partyers.
"The question is: What's really driving them? Is it budget stuff? Is it social issues? Is it anti-Obama, is it race?" says Maxwell. "This is a very, very consistent group of people. It's like you've taken a piece of the population out that's all so similar, so it's not surprising that they would have very consistent values on a lot of things."
She suggests that tea party could still succeed as a protest movement, even if it embraces a broader coalition of groups. But if tea party politics turns out to be nothing but the religious right in disguise, the tea party's base could fracture, damaging the party's brand at a critical time, she adds.
In any case, it might be in the GOP's interests to pick a fight with Democrats, no matter what the underlying ideology. "The Republican party can move further to the right to accommodate what the tea party wants" and risk a shutdown, or it could move toward the center and join with Democrats to pass a compromise budget, adds budget analyst Stan Collender in a recent blog post. "Allowing or forcing a shutdown to occur may be just what the leadership needs to do to demonstrate its commitment to the tea party’s preferred policies and style."