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November 20, 2014

Editorial: Defining the tea party

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Posted: Wednesday, May 28, 2014 6:00 pm

As political labels go, the terms “Republican” and “Democrat” leave a basic, though not nuanced, description of the person whose name follows it.

In today’s politics, a Republican favors smaller government, despises tax increases and almost assuredly opposes abortion and supports the death penalty. By and large, Democrats are open to limited tax increases to help public education and the poor, support expansion of aid programs and hold views on abortion and the death penalty opposite those of Republicans.

Those labels still work.

The “tea party” label may not.

At its heart, a tea party Republican resides on the far right of his or her party. They are fiercely against President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. They want as little federal intervention in state or local government as possible, if any at all. But as this year’s election season gains steam, it’s becoming increasingly clear that describing a candidate as a tea-partier isn’t a one-size-fits-all label.

Last week, data journalist Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com pointed out the many political variations that exist within the tea party label. He then wrote:

“What is the tea party, exactly? That’s not so clear. There are a constellation of groups, like Tea Party Patriots, FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, who sometimes associate themselves with the movement or are associated with it. But their agendas can range from libertarian to populist and do not always align. As in Missouri, they often do not endorse the same candidate. Nor do they always endorse the candidate who self-identifies as member of the tea party.”

The most prominent local tea party example is Republican Steven Guede, who is challenging Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, in next week’s primary. The winner faces Democrat Taylor Stewart in November.

Guede is a longtime figure in the Calhoun County Rainy Day Patriots group, and his tea party credentials were on full display at Tuesday night’s candidate forum at the Oxford Performing Arts Center. He railed against Common Core, the scope of the federal government and portions of the Alabama Accountability Act. There was no ambiguity in his positions.

However, any candidate associated with the tea party label — in Alabama or elsewhere — risks being painted with a brush too broad for some voters’ taste, including those who say they are conservative Republicans. Recent failures of tea party candidates in other states who have tried to unseat prominent incumbents have damaged the brand. And even Silver, a celebrated numbers-cruncher who rarely drifts into deep prose, is right when he wrote last week that “sometimes the ‘tea party’ term seems to serve as a euphemism for ‘crazy Republican’ rather than anything substantive.”

Silver isn’t the first pundit to say the tea party label is no longer politically useful, that it may even do a disservice to those who wear it. We assume “crazy” isn't the description they’re going for.

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