The elephant in the tea room?

Man climbing on an elephant trunk

On Friday, the Los Angeles Times told us that Christian conservatives and the tea party movement were getting cozy. The same day, Politico told us that evangelicals "fear" the tea partiers. (We looked at those two stories here.) This weekend, the New York Times gives us a third possible narrative. It says that the tea partiers are "avoiding" social conservatism. Here's the lede:

For decades, faith and family have been at the center of the conservative movement. But as the Tea Party infuses conservatism with new energy, its leaders deliberately avoid discussion of issues like gay marriage or abortion.

God, life and family get little if any mention in statements or manifestos. The motto of the Tea Party Patriots, a large coalition of groups, is "fiscal responsibility, limited government, and free markets." The Independence Caucus questionnaire, which many Tea Party groups use to evaluate candidates, poses 80 questions, most on the proper role of government, tax policy and the federal budgeting process, and virtually none on social issues.

The conflicting stories told by these three media heavyweights reminds me of that Jain Hindu Buddhist Indian tale about the blind men and the elephant. Six blind men are asked to describe an elephant and each touches a different part -- tusk, trunk, leg, etc. -- and describes a completely different animal. It's not that they're not telling the truth, it's just that they're dealing with limited information.

When I covered the 9/12 Tea Party rally here in Washington, D.C., TMatt asked me to talk about the religion ghosts that the media coverage had missed. I told him that religion didn't play a terribly noticeable role. I mean, with tens of thousands of homemade signs, you're bound to have a little bit of everything. But the vast majority of signs talked about concerns with the size and scope of government, the mismanagement of federal programs, debt, etc. I suspected that many of the folks there were religious but that wasn't exactly what brought them out. And there were a lot of people who flat out didn't identify with social conservatism -- libertarians were a significant presence as were fiscally conservative non-Republicans.

In other words, I think the New York Times piece gets the story much more right than the other two from last week.

Media coverage of the movement hasn't been great. Reporters have had a bit of a difficult time wrapping their heads around the group's motivation, goals and composition. Even with the huge -- but insufficiently covered -- 9/12 rally, I think it took some significant tea party-supported electoral successes and the emergence of tea party themes in other venues (Conservative Political Action Conference, Scott Brown victory, etc.) to get the media to start putting in more effort trying to figure the movement out in more detail.

That's where these stories from the last week are coming from and I think it's an excellent avenue for exploration.

What I think these stories miss, I guess, is some historical perspective. I think they also miss what life was like for small government, economic conservatives during the Bush administration.

Social conservatism has long been an animating force for the GOP in particular and the conservative movement in general. That's just flat out where you get the most committed political operatives and grassroots supporters -- at least for the last three decades. But what is also true is that for many years economic conservatives and small government adherents were another key part of the conservative voting bloc.

We could go into what the last ten years have been like for economic conservatives but let's just say that, from their perspective, things have gone from bad to very bad to much worse. Particularly in the last year and a half or so. Corporate bailouts, the stimulus package, proposed health care reform, the federal budget, tax hikes, cash for clunkers, you name it -- they don't like it and they're actually getting alarmed.

So all this to say that I think it's admirable that reporters are trying to get a handle on this story but that it might (still) not really be a story about social conservatism. I know for a fact that the tea party movement has social conservatives in it. And I know that they still care about social issues (I saw some evidence of this in the signage at the March for Life earlier this year). But however upset social conservatives are about the direction of the country, I think the tea party story is about the last decade of frustration and disappointment. There is overlap between these two groups -- some of it is probably significant overlap -- but it's just a different story to tell.

I know that much of reporting is about winners and losers. And while you can say that the tea party movement is "winning" right now, it's also true that social conservatives aren't doing half bad. As the Times notes, it's not economic conservatives so much as social conservatives who have been successful in battling health care reform. They also had yet another electoral victory on same-sex marriage last November when Maine voted against same-sex marriage. And economic conservatives and social conservatives worked together to elect Scott Brown. I'm sure there are many more examples.

But Kate Zernike, the reporter who writes this piece, has some trouble on this point:

Social issues still pack a wallop: a group of Democrats opposed to abortion rights could determine the fate of health care legislation in the House. And Republicans at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month, while celebrating the Tea Party for energizing their movement, spent much of their time talking about banning gay marriage and overturning Roe v. Wade. "God's in charge," Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota told a cheering crowd.

Was CPAC all about Republicans "talking about banning gay marriage and overturning Roe V. Wade"? Is that the same CPAC where, as the Los Angeles Times wrote last week, social issues were unimportant?:

Still, social issues took a back seat to talk of constitutional principles and government spending at the podium at last month's Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual showcase of the right.

Of the two likely Republican presidential contenders who spoke at the event, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney made virtually no mention of social issues, a noted departure from a past CPAC appearance. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty noted briefly that "God is in charge" while focusing most of his remarks on his work cutting spending in his state.

I mean, it's either one or the other, right? Did social issues dominate CPAC or take a back seat? Pick a narrative guys!

Prior to reading Zernike's interesting interpretation of CPAC, I thought the media agreed that social issues took a backseat. Not only was someone who opposed allowing a gay rights group to sponsor CPAC booed during the event, but fighting gay marriage ranked low on the issues the attendees cared about primarily. Zernike doesn't really buttress her point with any specifics and I think she may have confused the point of Pawlenty's speech, actually.

Zernike has already gotten in trouble for confusing the authentic dialect of a Brooklyn-raised speaker at CPAC with someone being racist and trying to imitate "Chris Rock." And she's gotten in trouble -- correction-wise -- with previous things she's written about gay issues. Here's a five-paragraph correction (readers here may appreciate the last corrected item) for a piece she wrote years ago about Boy Scouts and homosexuality. I think she might just have trouble covering speeches, actually.

So maybe we just need three more reports about the tea party movement's relationship to social conservatives and we'll finally have this elephant figured out.

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