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The looming government shutdown—particularly because it involves a standoff over an additional Republican rider that would defund Planned Parenthood—is presenting the American public with a window into the real priorities of the tea party. The standoff is a call for the newly elected tea party members to put their cards on the table: Are they really a new breed of pragmatic libertarian fiscal conservatives focused on cutting the budget? Or are they mostly a new flavor of socially conservative Republicans?
The current standoff provides an opportunity for the tea party to be the disciplined voice that keeps the Republican Party from being distracted by ideological battles when significant budget cuts are on the table. After all, funding for Planned Parenthood represents a miniscule part of the budget cuts being discussed. Moreover, there is evidence, based on data from the Guttmacher Institute, that defunding Planned Parenthood would actually cost the government $174 million more per year as those Medicaid-eligible women would be forced to seek services at more expensive clinics.
Tea party caucus leader Rep. Michele Bachmann’s (R-Minn.) flip-flop on this issue illustrates the bind many tea party supported candidates must feel. Just last month, Bachman appeared on a webinar sponsored by the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List and declared that she would fight “eyeball to eyeball” to keep the rider to defund Planned Parenthood in the budget bill, saying, “The next time we vote on the continuing resolution we have to insist on defunding ‘Obamacare’ and defunding Planned Parenthood…. My opinion is there is a point where you draw the line in the sand and you have a hill where you die on. I think this is our issue.”
But just last night, Bachmann reversed herself in an interview with John King on CNN, saying, “Well, my opinion is this. I think that we should have clean bill that makes sure that the paycheck gets to the troops on time.”
Bachmann’s waffling on this issue, and the lack of a clarion call from the tea party to have a clean budget bill, may be because tea party elected officials grasp a complicating truth: rank and file tea party members are not libertarians but social conservatives.
Heading into the elections last October, Public Religion Research Institute released data from our American Values Survey that showed that Americans who identify with the tea party do not fit the libertarian mold tea party elites use to describe the movement. We found nearly half (47 percent) of rank and file Americans who consider themselves part of the tea party movement also identifying with the Christian right movement. In fact, this revelation led to the coining of the term “Teavangelicals” by David Brody at Christian Broadcasting Network.
Moreover, we found that on hot-button issues, Americans who identify with the tea party are not libertarians favoring limited government involvement and maximum personal liberty. Instead, they are much more socially conservative than the general public: less than one-in five support allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, and nearly two-thirds of those identifying with the tea party movement say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.
The structure of the current government shutdown—with real budget cuts on the table attached to social issue riders—presents the tea party caucus with a challenge. It will demonstrate just how real the libertarian fiscal conservative rhetoric is; and if others follow Bachmann’s latest move to call for a clean bill with no riders, it will test the willingness of a socially conservative rank and file to see one of their prized social issues sacrificed. This struggle between rhetoric and reality is sure to be a persistent defining feature of tea party politics this year and through the 2012 election season.