What this means for Democrats is that they cannot dismiss the Tea Party’s concern with federal spending as a mere justification for racism and irrational hatred. Many of the leaders in the Tea Party movement presently did protest the big-spending habits of the Bush administration. As I have noted elsewhere, the very same FreedomWorks that undergirds the Tea Party movement pushed hard to "Stop the Wall Street Bailout" in late 2008, at the same time as Dick Armey was declaring that “compassionate conservatism was a mistake” and Republicans should return to the effective compassion of small government solutions. And when the Heritage Foundation objected that TARP exceeded the enumerated authorities given the federal government in the Constitution, they gave the same reasons they give now for their support of Tea Party objectives.

Democrats misread the moment of their ascendance. They thought Bush represented conservatism itself, rather than a particular strand of conservatism, and they interpreted the electorate’s repudiation of Bush as a repudiation of traditional conservatism. Whether the Democrats would have done anything differently, if they had better understood the world outside the echo chamber, is debatable. But they might at least have known that the American people as a whole were not ready for a rapid expansion of government amidst debts and deficits unseen since the Second World War. America as a whole has remained center-right, and it is entirely natural that those who rejected Bush for his government growth and deficit spending would become, when Obama exploded that growth and spending, the leaders of the Tea Party movement. Further, for many conservatives there was some amount of trust that Bush would not go too far, that his policies were pro-growth, that his deficits were more sustainable. Obama came along and tripled the rate at which the debt is growing, budgeted for trillion dollar deficits as far as the eye could see, and punishes the very same private sector that he so desperately needs to create jobs. This alone, without reference to racism or bigotry or irrational hatred, is sufficient explanation for the Tea Party movement.

For the GOP, the lesson should be sobering. If all goes well for the Republicans on November 2nd, in the midst of their celebration they should remember that their victory comes only because the Democrats took what the Republicans were doing and doubled and tripled down. And they should know that the Tea Partiers who are largely responsible for the enthusiasm gap will hold them accountable to their promises. Many Americans, and not only the Tea Party activists, feel that rapid government growth and the national debt constitute severe threats to the health of our economy and our nation. Republicans will be expected to take action, to fulfill their promises of financial responsibility, or to suffer a similar repudiation in 2012.

The tea started brewing under the Bush administration, and now it’s scalding hot against the Democrats. But it may burn Republicans too if they don’t change their ways.

 

Dr. Timothy Dalrymple writes weekly on faith, politics, and culture for Patheos’ Evangelical Portal. Follow him at his blog, Philosophical Fragments, on Facebook or on Twitter.

Dalrymple discusses the context for this article at his blog here.