Jonathan Chait

No, Health Care Didn't Cause The Tea Party

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I've already seen a lot of punditry asserting that health care reform is the reason for the GOP's midterm election gains, but I've rarely seen the case made less persuasively than by Republican consultant Steve Lombardo:

The debate over -- and the eventual enactment of -- health care reform legislation was the flashpoint for a political firestorm that will reach its apex on November 2nd. Opposition to health care reform came from two perceptions: 1) that the White House and Congress were focusing on the wrong thing and 2) that this was a perfect example of government overreach during a period of economic distress. Let's put it this way, if there were no health care law there would be no Tea Party. It is probably as simple as that.

First of all, it's kind of silly to think that the rise of the Tea Party is the cause rather than the manifestation of the Democrats' troubles. A surge of right-wing activism always results from a new Democratic president. There's simply no scenario in which Democrats would have unified control of government -- especially during an economic crisis -- and and not see a wave of right-wing political mobilization.

Second, the idea that health care reform led to the rise of the Tea Party is simply ahistorical. A brief timeline:

February 19th, 2009: Rick Santelli rants on CNBC about the Obama administration's aid to homeowners delinquent on their mortgages, and calls for a "Chicago tea party" protest.

February 27th: Conservative activists hold the first nationwide tea party protests, focusing on taxes and government spending.

March 5th: Obama holds a health care forum at the White House with congressional, think tank, and industry experts. He outlines broad goals, including lowered costs, increased efficiency, and universal coverage, but doesn't suggest specifics.

April 1st: By the end of March, insurers have made major concessions, and Democratic committee chairmen in the House and Senate have agreed on a broad outline of goals for the bill, including a mandate and a public option, but actual bills are still a long way from being introduced.

April 15th: Tea Party protests on Tax Day cement the group in the national media. The protests again focus on "higher taxes and out-of-control government spending."

June 6th: In his weekly address, Obama calls health care reform "a necessity we cannot postpone any longer." The address marks the beginning of a new "intense push for legislation" on the part of the White House, after several months of deferring to Congress.

July 4th: The Tea Party holds a third round of major nationwide protests. The protesters once again focus on government spending and taxes, decrying not only health care reform, but also the stimulus passed a few months earlier.

July 14th: Health care bill introduced in the House; House committee leaders promise to begin voting that week.

July 15th: One Senate health care proposal passes the HELP Committee.

July 17th: Tea Party Patriots, a Freedomworks front group, holds the first health care-specific nationwide Tea Party protests.

August 2009: In town hall meetings across the country, Tea Party members lead vocal protests against health care legislation.

In short, Tea Party activism had started before the health care debate, and had spread while health care reform was still highly popular. The movement was always going to attach itself to the cause of fighting whatever the centerpiece of Obama's domestic agenda happened to be. If Obama had never attempted health care reform, the cause would be bailouts, stimulus, taxes and debt.

 

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