The Tea Party movement burst onto the political scene three years ago. The spark that got it started was CNBC correspondent Rick Santelli’s Feb. 19, 2009 on-air diatribe against the Obama administration’s program to provide aid to distressed mortgage borrowers.
“We’re thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party,” Santelli shouted from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, winning applause from traders. By the end of that month, Tea Party protests were occurring in cities across the United States.
Considering that it was ignited by a trading-floor scene broadcast on a financial TV channel, the Tea Party has not been characterized by a particular affinity for the financial sector. On the contrary, outrage over federal bailouts of financial institutions has been a Tea Party theme, in keeping with the movement’s broader hostility to Big Government spending and activism.
Tea Partiers also have shown receptiveness to Ron Paul’s anti-Federal Reserve campaign, in which the Texas congressman and presidential candidate has denounced the central bank’s industry “cronies” and an “all-powerful, behemoth banking cartel.”
Such wariness of Wall Street jibes well with the movement’s populist, anti-establishment tone. The cultural disconnect between the Tea Party and Big Finance has overshadowed those areas where the two worlds overlap, such as in shared aversions to heavy regulation and taxes. While opposing the Dodd-Frank legislation, for instance, Tea Partiers tended to emphasize its burdens on community banks, not big institutions.
The Tea Party has been a powerful force in Republican politics over the last three years. The decentralized movement played a major role in energizing a GOP takeover of the House of Representatives in the 2010 elections. However, the Tea Party’s predilection for fervently outspoken candidates over compromising career politicians also produced some Republican nominees, such as Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Sharron Angle in Nevada, whose defeats contributed to the GOP’s failure to retake the Senate.
The current Republican nomination race has offered evidence that the Tea Party’s influence is fading. Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Perry, all seen at one time or another as favorites of the movement, did not endure long in the competition. Sarah Palin, who might have been a formidable Tea Party unifier and champion, never put that proposition to the test.
Mitt Romney emerged as a clear frontrunner with his Florida primary win. Among the GOP hopefuls whose candidacies endured into February, Romney may be the least synced with Tea Party rhetoric and priorities. Unlike Ron Paul, Romney does not propose sweeping federal budget cuts and the embrace of a narrow Constitutional order. Unlike Newt Gingrich, Romney does not seek to rally a populist disdain for the GOP “establishment.” Rick Santorum, for his part, offers an emphasis on social issues whereas many Tea Partiers favor a fiscal focus.
Romney’s wealth and connections to the financial sector, including years spent at private-equity firm Bain Capital and portfolios invested with Goldman Sachs, have been tempting targets for his Republican rivals. Santorum has made a point of distinguishing between “high finance” and “capitalism that works for the working men and women of this country.”
Gingrich has employed rhetoric about “people power,” represented by his campaign, going up against the “money power” embodied by Romney. Going into the Florida primary, the former House speaker asserted that a win for his campaign would “send a signal to George Soros, Goldman Sachs, to the entire New York and Washington establishment: Money can’t beat people power.”
Undoubtedly, Gingrich intended such rhetoric to appeal to Tea Party distrust of Wall Street. However, the approach disquieted some conservative observers. Ira Stoll, editor of the free-market website FutureOfCapitalism.com, complained in late January: “If voters are looking for a president to demonize Wall Street or major banks, they’ve got a perfectly fine incumbent in Barack Obama.”