Ten years ago, there was a dumb romantic comedy starring Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt called "What Women Want." Not that the question isn't an age-old concern for men, but it was a silly movie.
Today, a more pressing question is, "What Do Tea Partiers Want?" The question, however, should not be narrowed down to those people who go to rallies, carry signs or wear tri-corner hats with tea bags hanging off them. Rather, the question should be asked of the segment of voters that is perhaps two or three times larger and generally sympathetic with the Tea Party agenda, even if it doesn't identify with the movement or attend Tea Party functions.
Is the thrust of the Tea Party movement anti-government? If so, is it broad or selective? Just how anti-government are they? Are they for cutting the defense budget, and are they for putting ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) on ice, as well as a border fence? Basically, are they for cutting government, or are they for cutting the programs that they disagree with?
Are they just anti-tax? It's a good bet that much of the group is driven by a hatred for taxes, but the Brookings Institution's Tax Policy Center estimates that federal income taxes are at a 60-year low. After President George W. Bush's first-term tax cuts and with the debt having doubled in eight years, before Barack Obama even took office, it's hard to see how there could be any additional significant tax cuts without the debt ballooning even further.
In all fairness, this group is more likely motivated by a fear of additional taxes, a legitimate fear given the mounting debt and the fact that discretionary domestic spending is only a tiny part of the problem.
Is the movement more focused on balancing the budget and cutting back on the national debt? Most would talk a good game, but when the subject comes up, the group demands that spending be cut. But it's hard to see how spending could be cut significantly without some serious slashing of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and given that the movement skews older, that could get interesting.
To what degree is the movement more partisan, anti-Democratic Party and generally disdainful of the economic stimulus package?
The truth, and the problem, is that the Tea Party movement is probably some or all of these things. Some members are driven by just one of these motivations and some by several or even all of them.
This isn't just an academic question. Rather, it's one important for Republicans to figure out if they are successful in recapturing their majority in the House (which looks increasingly likely) and the Senate (less likely but possible given the political climate).
One of the biggest challenges for winners is to ascertain why they won and what their mandate was. The sooner they do this, the better.
All too often, mandates become obscured by the victory itself. Victories come to be seen as ideological even if they weren't, resulting in winners "over-reading" their mandates. Extraneous events or forces, mistakes or scandals involving the losing party, become discounted and winners come to think they won because the voters loved them and their ideas. In this election, Republicans might win not because of who they are or what they think or propose as much as whom they are not. Democrats might lose this election more than Republicans win it. Elections are binary. If voters are mad or disappointed by one party, the other party benefits.
Thus it really is important to cut through the anger and ascertain what exactly this segment of the electorate wants. For Democrats, it is to understand what their problem is, and for Republicans it's to figure out what it means if they are to win.
The key difference, it would seem, between this Tea Party movement and Ross Perot's movement of the early 1990s is that Perot seemed driven by data and intent on solutions, whether one agreed with him or not. The current movement seems more against things than for something. They seem short on data and practical recommendations and long on venting.
To their credit, the Tea Party movement has remained relatively focused on fiscal matters, refusing to diffuse its messages into social and cultural or foreign policy issues, though some of its adherents would love for them to do so. In that way, it is not fair to say that the movement has no coherence. They might not say what they are for but they are pretty quick to say what they are not talking about, lest they marginalize themselves.
Under normal circumstances, these questions could be at least adequately addressed by calling the leader -- say, Perot, if this were back in 1992 -- or one of his top lieutenants. But the Tea Party is too decentralized for that. It seems as much a state of mind as a political movement, a political Rorschach test, meaning different things to different people.
All this means nobody will really know what they wanted or what the election told us about the state of the country if they do succeed in having a significant impact in 2010.
So what do they want?