By David Harsynl
Democratic Party leaders like to lament the rise of the "radical" tea party within the GOP. A quick Google search of "Harry Reid," "radical" and "tea party," for instance, offers a reader thousands of results. The rebels have taken over, creating unprecedented gridlock and they've blown up the delicate bipartisanship of (revisionist) past. Or so we hear.
Yes, the 2010 mid-term election--a referendum on both parties--was a historical sweep as 87 freshmen House Republicans came to Washington riding a wave of conservative populism. The freshman class might have been anti-establishment, but did it turn out to be as ideologically inflexible as mainstream media consistently claims?
A new Club for Growth study, using methodology that weighs votes on economic freedom, might surprise voters. While veteran Republicans scored a 69 percent rating on their votes, the "radical" freshman class of 2010 scored only slightly higher at 71 percent.
We're talking about votes on ethanol subsidies, modest departmental cuts, the reining in of the National Labor Relations Board, and other supposedly non-negotiable items from the tea party agenda.
"The purpose of report was to try and educate the public and mainstream media, that just because a Republican was elected in 2010 it doesn't make them a tea party conservative," says Barney Keller, communications director for Club for Growth. "Overall, freshman Republicans are just like traditional ones the rhetoric is hyped up but often it doesn't match the voting record."
Perhaps the freshman class has moved the entire party to the right? If so, what accounts for the disparity within the tea party? There are a few possible answers. Maybe once you arrive in Washington, party leadership and political pressure convince you to take on a less ideological and more practical worldview. Or, maybe the freshman class was never as ardently conservative as voters were led to believe.
Take Florida congressman Allen West, a name that has "tea party" tethered to it. Club for Growth scores West at 64 percent, and his record shows that he has repeatedly voted for the types of spending and energy subsidy bills that one assumes would be an automatic "no" for a tea party member.
He's not alone. Thirteen members of the freshman class scored 50 percent or lower in the Club for Growth rankings--some of them lower than those establishment RINOs--and nearly half of the freshman Republican class of 2010 voted under the 69 percent average of the veterans they were supposed to set straight.
"I have often said the race is on to change Washington before it changes us," says Tim Huelskamp--who, along with Reps. Justin Amash of Michigan and Raul Labrador of Idaho, earned a perfect 100 score (there are others in the high 90s.) "In 2010, voters judged the freshman class by our promises. But in 2012, they will judge us by our records, particularly what has not been done. Where are the real, tangible cuts? Where is the progress toward preventing the most predictable fiscal crisis in history? By most conservative ratings, our class and this Congress have fallen far short of our conservative fiscal promises."
After listening to Republican Study Committee members' impatient answers about leadership last week at a "Conversation with Conservatives" lunch, it is obvious that frustration over the debt-ceiling deal, the Export-Import Bank and a host of other issues, has many tea party members frustrated.
Some of the frustrations, however, are not with leadership but with fellow freshmen who are less enthusiastic about the fight, because despite the general perception, the purist fiscal conservative ideologue has yet to overrun the party.