Tea Party’s Internal Culture War

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November 22, 2010; Source: National Public Radio | This story from NPR is one we anticipated—and it is of great importance for nonprofits that are reading the tea (party) leaves, trying to divine the direction of the new Congress.

The Tea Partyiers are beginning to divide along predictable lines, the social conservatives versus the fiscal libertarians. Social conservatives opposed to abortion rights and to same-sex marriages see the new Republican majority in the House and the cowed Democratic majority in the Senate as the first opening to pursue their agenda. The Libertarian wing of the Tea Party is concerned that their successful electoral movement based on a “laser-like focus on fiscal issues” could be derailed if social conservatives pull the Tea Party adherents off course.

Part of the battle for message control of the Tea Party movement concerns GOProud, an organization for gay conservatives, whose position is that the Tea Party wave election was due to bread-and-butter economic issues. On the other side of the divide are the likes of Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, who is hoping that a Republican majority could overturn Roe v. Wade, and Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) who told Fox News that “you can’t be a fiscal conservative and not be a social conservative. Says Christopher Barron, who chairs GOProud: “In this economic environment, people don’t want to hear what your position is on gay marriage, abortion, or gay teachers. They want to hear about the bread-and-butter issues of the economy.”

GOProud sent a letter, cosigned by some local Tea Party leaders, to Congressional Republican leaders John Boehner and Mitch McConnell advising them to “stay focused on the issues that got you and your colleagues elected, and to resist the urge to run down any social-issue rabbit holes in order to appease the special interests.” In response, the founder of Tea Party Nation, Judson Phillips, denounced GOProud as not part of the Tea Party movement.

Some potential Republican presidential nominees for 2012 have to be fretting that their grand winning coalition may be coming apart even before the new Congress is seated in 2011. Indiana governor Mitch Daniels has called for a “truce” on social issues while the economy is in shambles, but both sides slammed his call. Perkins said that social issues are “always running in the background,” even when the economy merits attention.

Barron of GOProud countered by asking, “Why would you want the federal government teaching us morality and values when that’s the proper role of families and our places of worship?” Some nonprofit leaders such as Gary Bass of OMB Watch have predicted that Congressional gridlock would result from tensions between Republicans and Democrats as well as the numerical impossibility of conservative Republicans getting veto-proof majorities for their legislative initiatives. Increasingly, however, that gridlock looks like it will be rooted in internecine warfare within the Republican Party itself.—Rick Cohen