Tea party fortunes are fading even as its star Michele Bachmann shines

A new poll finds favorable views of 'the tea party movement' have slumped to a new low. But that hasn't dimmed the star of Michele Bachmann, seen by many as a winner of the televised GOP debate.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Republican presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., greets visitors as she campaigns at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, Friday. Behind her is husband Marcus Bachmann.

Even as tea party idol Michele Bachmann has emerged as a prominent contender for the Republican presidential nomination, the popularity of the tea party movement among the US public is slumping to a new low.

That's the message of a new CNN/Opinion Research poll that asked whether Americans have a favorable opinion of various people and groups.

When it came to "the tea party movement," known for its hard line on federal spending and deficits, only 31 percent of respondents said they have a favorable view. That's down from 37 percent in mid-July, and the lowest level since the CNN poll began asking the question in January 2010.

Fifty-one percent of Americans said their view of the tea party is unfavorable, the most ever and the first time a majority of Americans have held that view in the survey. The poll was taken last weekend, Aug. 5 to Aug. 7.

However the downshift in tea party esteem hasn't dimmed Ms. Bachmann's own star, at least so far.

Many viewers saw her as a winner in a televised Republican debate Thursday night, and the CNN poll finds that many Americans would vote for her if she wins the presidential nomination in 2012 (45 percent, versus 51 percent who said they'd prefer to reelect President Obama).

For comparison, some polls show a generic "Republican" enjoying roughly that same level of support against Obama, while the CNN poll found slightly stronger support for Mitt Romney (48 percent) and Rick Perry (46 percent).

Although various factors may have played a role in the survey results, the declining approval for the tea party comes after one prominent event in which the movement's followers played a big role: the debt talks in Washington that ended recently in a patched-together compromise.

Democrats wanted a deal that included increased tax revenues, along with spending cuts, as part of a deficit-reduction package accompanying a vote to raise the ceiling on US Treasury borrowing.

Republicans stood against any deal that boosted federal tax revenues, with tea-party-aligned lawmakers among the firmest on that point. Some, including Bachmann, went a step further, saying they would not support any deal to allow the Treasury to go deeper into debt.

An impassioned body of Americans agrees with that view, arguing that a radical move to downsize government is needed immediately to liberate a debt-laden economy.

Many economists and finance experts, however, while agreeing that the current fiscal path is not sustainable, argue that a refusal to raise the debt ceiling would have caused such deep spending cuts that the resulting jolt would have damaged an already weak economy.

They argued, as well, that America's credit rating could suffer as the world witnessed budgetary chaos, with the Treasury wrestling with which bills it would or would not pay. (The US has been borrowing about 40 cents for every dollar of federal spending this year.)

As the nation neared that brink, the White House, in an apparent jab at the tea party, argued that "cooler heads" would prevail, and a compromise would be reached.

In the end, a deal happened. But it wasn't the "grand bargain" that some had hoped for, which would have reduced deficits by $4 trillion over the next decade, including entitlement cuts and some tax-revenue increases. The final deal is expected to cut future deficits by about half that amount.

Many budget experts believe a credible $4 trillion bargain could have averted the recent move by Standard & Poor's to downgrade its credit rating of US Treasury debt.

Fiscal conservatives including tea party members put their stamp on the final deal. The compromise contained echoes of their "cut, cap, and balance" platform (spending cuts, hard limits on the rise of future spending, and consideration of a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution).

The debt talks gave some tea party members a chance to espouse their ideas on national TV, but is also exposed them to some criticism from within Republican ranks (the "hobbits" comment, for example, from Sen. John McCain of Arizona) and from outside (words like "terrorist" and "extortionist" surfaced in Democratic circles).

Now Bachmann finds herself on the cover of Newsweek, but with what appears to be an intentionally unflattering, wild-eyed look on her face.

Meanwhile, if the tea party has taken a hit from the difficult budget battle, so has Obama. According to Gallup polling, the president's approval rating is at a recent low of 41 percent, down from the mid-40s in July.

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