Russ Douthat posits that Iowa will come down to a choice between Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul and that this is a battle for the soul of the Tea Party. I’ll explain after the quote why I think this misunderstands the Tea Party:
Most important, they represent two very different endpoints for the Tea Party movement. Paul, for all his crankishness, is the kind of conservative that Tea Partiers want to believe themselves to be: Deeply principled, impressively consistent, a foe of big government in nearly all its forms (the Department of Defense very much included), a man of ideas rather than of party.
Gingrich, on the other hand, is the kind of conservative that liberals believe most Tea Partiers to be – not a genuine “don’t tread on me” libertarian, but a partisan Republican whose unstinting support for George W. Bush’s deficit spending morphed into hand-wringing horror of “socialism” once a Democrat captured the Oval Office.
Paul’s rigid consistency can be a vice, and Gingrich’s flexibility a virtue. (Its disastrous ending notwithstanding, his term as speaker included genuine accomplishments that wouldn’t have been possible without a willingness to deal and compromise.) But for a movement that conceives of itself as a rebuke to the grubby compromises of Washington business-as-usual, the Texan congressman should represent a beau ideal, and the former speaker of the house should represent the enemy…So Iowa Tea Partiers face a choice. If the town hall crashers and Washington Mall marchers of 2009 settle on a Medicare Part D-supporting, Freddie Mac-advising, Nancy Pelosi-snuggling Washington insider as their not-Romney standard bearer in 2012, then every liberal who ever sneered at the Tea Party will get to say “I told you so.” If Paul wins the caucuses, on the other hand, the movement will keep its honor – but also deliver the Republican nomination gift-wrapped to Mitt Romney.
Douthat makes the same mistake that many liberals have made when discussing the Tea Party movement, the mistake of thinking that there is a single coherent ideology within that large group. There isn’t, unless you think “we hate Obama” is a coherent ideology (and it isn’t). The Tea Party has always been split between social conservatives and more libertarian-minded conservatives. This was clear early on when a survey found that about 25% of the Tea Party folks thought Ron Paul was the obvious leader to follow and about 25% thought it was Sarah Palin instead — but over 50% of them said they wouldn’t vote for either of those people for president. The one thing that has always united them is fear and loathing of Barack Obama.