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Focus on the Tea Party, miss what’s going on

Two op-ed pieces today provide some badly-needed perspective on the Tea Party and party politics generally.

First, the Financial Times' Gideon Rachman is in America, and he has a very sensible opinion piece on the Tea Party in today's edition. As Rachman rightly points out, the Tea Party "is not as 'mad' as its opponents sometimes claim". But perhaps an even more important point he makes is that "the Republican Party and the Tea Party are not synonomous." The Republicans are fielding many candidates that are not Tea Partiers - including businessmen and women, some of whom are very bland bean-counter types. If the Republicans make big gains in the midterms, it won't be because of the Tea Party candidates, as they represent only a small fraction of GOP candidates.

Second, Gerald Seib in the Wall Street Journal argues that "an exceptionally high level of intensity among conservatives and core Republicans" cannot explain, in itself, the main trends in American politics. Indeed, only 29 percent of voters in a Pew study identified themselves as Republican. This means the Tea Party is a minority within a minority.

Instead, Seib suggests that more attention should be paid to independents, who, at 37 percent in the Pew survey, represent a higher percentage of voters than either Republicans or Democrats (34 percent). Self-identifying as "independent" is a way for voters to express their estrangement from traditional party politics. Seib notes that, according to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, about a third expressed sympathy for the Tea Party. "Put another way, many independent voters, unlike many Tea-Party activists, aren't reflexively against government action to solve problems. They simply think government is failing," writes Seib.

These points by Rachman and Seib reinforce my earlier arguments that the Tea Party is more of a distracting sideshow than the central tendency when it comes understanding the direction of American politics. In becoming obsessed with the Tea Party, the Democrats in particular are avoiding having to face up to the reality of mundane, sedate Republican candidates cleaning their clocks in seats around the country.

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