Rome's Tea Party pioneer?

You remember the tea party activists don't you? So, set the way-back machine for about a year ago and remember the early coverage of this movement. The key was that the tea party core, the top leaders, were all about economics, not social issues. Their movement represented a chance for the Religious Right era to come to an end in God's Own Party, with the drive for theocracy being crushed under a kind of brash grassroots Libertarian assault. The goal was to blend pickup-truck populists with the kind of rich country-club Republicans who went hunting with Dick Cheney.

You remember those guys? Don't you?

Thus, I was rather struck by the following Washington Post report about the signs that former Sen. Rich Santorum of Pennsylvania was thinking about running for president (or vice president or the cabinet or whatever). Here's the top of this oh-so-familiar A1 story:

GOFFSTOWN, N.H. -- It was pushing 10 p.m., and Rick Santorum was sitting at the corner table in a near-empty Dunkin' Donuts. The garishly lit scene might have been lifted straight from the movie "Primary Colors."

"I'm feeling like doors are opening," the Republican former senator from Pennsylvania mused over his decaf. "Things are happening that maybe give me the impression that maybe I need to look at this seriously."

So seriously that Santorum was on his seventh trip to New Hampshire since April. Not to mention seven to Iowa over the past 14 months and seven to South Carolina in that time.

It had been a busy day: morning meetings with influential New Hampshire Republicans and grass-roots leaders, a luncheon with the Manchester Rotary Club, a dash to the seacoast for a private audience with former governor John Sununu, a dinner with GOP activist Claira Monier, then a question-and-answer session with the Goffstown-Weare Republican Committee. Santorum had yet another meeting that evening back at his hotel. Before heading home the next day, he would get in an early-morning speech to a second Rotary chapter, a round of media interviews, more face time with GOP activists. Oh, and he'd make it to Mass at a nearby church.

Now that sounds like Santorum, a man whose politics have long been wrapped in images of his large family, his faith and the difficult task of working with both sides of Catholic social doctrines in the context of the modern Republican Party. He strongly opposed gay-rights initiatives, yet also helped fight for AIDS packages in Africa. He was the kind of senator who worked with his friend Sen. Joseph Lieberman on many bipartisan efforts for the poor -- think school-lunch programs -- while infuriating the world of abortion-rights activists.

Which is why I was somewhat surprised when I hit this part of the piece:

... (T)here's the fact that the Republican establishment may not be in the driver's seat this time. And the other fact that Santorum was a tea party kind of guy before there was a tea party.

In the recent history of Washington, few have so gleefully ransacked the established order or shown such contempt for its protocols.

Elected to the House in 1990 at the tender age of 32, Santorum made his mark as one of the "Gang of Seven" freshmen who exposed the House banking scandal. They forced the disclosure that more than half of their colleagues had written hot checks, and helped send dozens into retirement or defeat.

As a freshman senator four years later, Santorum violated the chamber's decorous folkways by carting around a "Where's Bill?" sign to demand a balanced budget from President Bill Clinton. He tried to have Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) removed as chairman of the Appropriations Committee because of Hatfield's refusal to support a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.

Santorum was notorious for his moral pronouncements.

So what does the "tea party" term mean in this context?

White House speechwriter Michael Gerson used to say that, during the first term of George W. Bush, there were tensions between the GOP's small-L libertarians and what he called the "small-c" Catholics, who wanted to use new methods to accomplish old goals of social justice. In other words, Big-C Catholics like Santorum working with evangelicals and others who had similar goals.

Now, before you click comment to dissect Santorum, let me ask that you focus on the actual journalism issue here -- the "tea party" label. What does it mean now? Rebels against the GOP establishment? Folks who want to slash the budget? Libertarian networks in which lots of church people are now active, since that's where the momentum is these days?

So how was Santorum a tea-party guy before there was a tea party if much of his agenda has, essentially, been rooted in his Catholic beliefs? How does a small-c and large-C man from the Church of Rome end up as a tea-party patriarch? Does the word simply mean "rebellion" now?

I'm asking a journalism question: Do these words -- tea party -- have any meaning?

Now, click "comment." Help me wrestle with that question.

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