In the competition to bring voter intensity to the approaching midterm congressional elections, the Republican Party is looking to the emerging tea party movement to swell its ranks at the polls in November.
The voter phenomenon got a questionable push the other day from one of its leading lights, conservative Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. She sought and won creation of a Tea Party Caucus in the House by petitioning the Democratic chairman of the House Administration Committee, Rep. Robert Brady of Pennsylvania.
Ms. Bachmann described the caucus as "an informal group of members dedicated to promote Americans' call for fiscal responsibility, adherence to the Constitution and limited government." Americans, she said, have "had enough of the spending, bureaucracy and the government-knows-best mentality running rampant today throughout the halls of Congress."
The new caucus, like the Congressional Black Caucus and other voluntary groupings of House members, has no special privileges but facilitates solidarity in advancing its political goals. But because the tea party movement has become a controversial amalgam of anti-big-government advocates, many establishment Republicans are exhibiting a certain resistance to getting too close to the new caucus.
The zealousness of some of its elements has already generated a war of sorts with the NAACP over strident comments from an extremist offshoot calling itself the Tea Party Express. Its leader, Mark Williams, a former right-wing talk show host, triggered a full-blown protest from NAACP President Ben Jealous over an outrageous bit of racist website satire. It suggested that "we Colored People" yearned for pre-emancipation days of "three squares, room and board, all our decisions made by the massa in the house."
An umbrella group, the National Tea Party Foundation, quickly announced that Mr. Williams and his organization had been expelled from the movement. But the embarrassment lingers, causing many Republican members of Congress to wonder what price they may pay for the intensity that the movement will bring to the polls in November.
There is also establishment Republican concern over the fact that former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska has moved aggressively to put herself in position as spokeswoman without portfolio of the tea party movement. Tea party fundraisers are pouring money into congressional primary and general-election races on behalf of Republicans such as Sharron Angle in Nevada, vying to oust Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Rand Paul, the Senate nominee in Kentucky and son of Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, the Libertarian presidential nominee in 2008.
For all of Ms. Palin's appeal to conservatives around the country, her consistently low standing as a potential 2012 presidential candidate in public-opinion polls also causes considerable nervousness among older GOP leaders.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, pressed in a Sunday interview on CNN about the NAACP complaint against tea party elements, ducked. "I am not interested in getting into that debate," he said. Well, he was asked, did some of the signs at tea party rallies make him uncomfortable?
"Look," he said, "there are all kinds of things in America that make me uncomfortable, both on the right and on the left. I've got better things to do than to wade into all of these disputes and discussions that are going out in the country. What we are trying to do is to make the president a born-again moderate." As a leader in a party that professes interest in broadening its base, however, Mr. McConnell passed up an easy opportunity to reject blatant racism.
House Minority Leader John Boehner likewise ducked on the question of joining the new Tea Party Caucus. A spokesman told Politico: "As a personal policy, Boehner is not a member of any caucus other than the House Republican Conference."
From all this, it's very clear that the tea party movement is seen by the Republican establishment leadership as very much a mixed blessing for the party right now. As with many other self-generated political groups not subject to party discipline, the trick is getting the movement's intensity and votes without the baggage that can come with it. And the tea party seems to pick up more and more of the latter as it goes on.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book, on the Nixon-Agnew relationship, "Very Strange Bedfellows," has just been published.