Tea party: Libertarian revolt or religious right in disguise?

In Texas and some other states, the tea party has focused on abortion as much as the state deficit. Five months after its successes in Election 2010, the tea party faces a reckoning: What does it stand for?

Pat Sullivan/AP/file
A woman wore a sign expressing her feelings at a tea party rally in downtown Houston last spring.

After the tea party helped stake Texas Republicans to huge majorities in the state Legislature last fall, the Republicans had a curious response. They did not immediately take on the state's $27 billion deficit; instead they considered a series of bills straight from the religious right's playbook – antiabortion legislation foremost among them.

Even now, as the Legislature tackles the budget deficit, social issues are near the surface. A member of the tea party caucus proposed a budget amendment that calls for funding "family and traditional values centers" at some universities.

In November, the tea party swept candidates into Congress and statehouses on promises of setting America's financial house in order. But today, the tea party's track record suggests that a great reckoning is under way.

In places like Texas, where the religious right holds sway, the movement is moving to embody a broader conservative agenda. Elsewhere, tea partyers are striving to keep social issues from "ruining" the movement.

Ever amorphous and leaderless, the tea party remains a geographically diverse group with members who have fundamental ideological differences over what the movement stands for. But with polls suggesting that support is waning, the movement's identity could be key to its prospects on the national and state level: Must it incorporate wider conservative values to grow and survive, or would that be a fatal repudiation of its very identity?

"Social issues have created a potential for internal schism within the tea party," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "They have consensus against big government, but the libertarian wing is against introducing social issues."

Last year, Indiana governor and national tea party leader Mitch Daniels called for a "truce" on discussing social issues. But in many states, tea partyers have kept social measures in the spotlight.

In Oklahoma and South Dakota, tea party lawmakers have proposed strict antiabortion bills. Montana has challenged gay rights, and Indiana recently passed a bill that would outlaw same-sex unions. At the national level, congressional Republicans fought to the 11th hour on April 8 to cut federal funding for abortion provider Planned Parenthood and to ban foreign aid to countries that would use funding for family planning services.

In Texas, the first few weeks of the legislative session this year were spent passing measures like a controversial bill requiring women to have a sonogram before undergoing an abortion. The bill's author, Republican Sen. Dan Patrick, chairs the Legislature's tea party caucus.

"Social issues are coming up because they're easier to pass," says Sean Theriault, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. "And there are huge [Republican] margins in the Texas House, so if there was ever a time to pass this kind of legislation, it's now."

Clearly, the tea party's small-government mantra resonates with conservatives – including those who do not share libertarian views on social issues. A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed more than 40 percent of tea party supporters identify as Christian conservative, and nearly 60 percent said abortion should be illegal.

But in Texas, the tea party is indistinguishable from the religious right, in many respects. During last November's race for speaker of the state House, tea party groups targeted incumbent Speaker Joe Straus, a Jewish Republican, saying they wanted to replace him with what one legislator called a "true Christian" leader.

This focus on social issues is alienating the tea party's libertarian supporters, some of whom predicted the religious right would try to co-opt the movement. "I want to build on our success, not ruin the coalition by bringing 'God's will' into it," Maine Tea Party Patriots' coordinator Andrew Ian Dodge, a leading libertarian voice, told Newsweek last year.

It is a concern for the tea party. According to a recent Monitor/TIPP poll, 26 percent of respondents said their opinions of the tea party had worsened since November. Some 11 percent said their opinions had improved, and 57 percent reported no change.

If the movement "is going to last, there are compromises that will have to be worked out between the libertarians and the Christian conservatives," says John Green, director of the Bliss Institute for Applied Politics at the University of Akron in Ohio. "That's a big stumbling block."

Another obstacle is a lack of organization. Last year, with a floundering economy and a Democratic majority in Congress, fiscal conservatism was a rallying point. "In 2010, different people from different backgrounds came together and the enthusiasm swept it all up," says Professor Green. "It will be interesting to see where the diversity ends up this time."

Already, there are signs of a libertarian backlash. In early April, tea party activists in Austin protested for further cuts to the Texas House's already austere budget bill.

But the battle for the Republican presidential nomination could be the tipping point – whether tea party support goes to a fiscal stalwart like Mitt Romney or to the likes of Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) of Minnesota, who said last month that "social conservatism is fiscal conservatism."

"It's clear that there's more consensus on fiscal issues within the movement," says Professor Theriault. "So the more the movement focuses on social ones, the less power it will have."

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