Tea Party Responds to Obama: We Won’t Stop Protesting

In his State of the Union response, Sen. Mike Lee tells Americans his group is ready to protest bad policy in 2014 — again, on its own.

National Journal
Brian Resnick and Marina Koren
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Brian Resnick and Marina Koren
Jan. 28, 2014, 5:51 p.m.
“Obama­care — all by it­self — is an in­equal­ity Godz­illa”

The rift between es­tab­lish­ment Re­pub­lic­ans and tea parti­ers has been grow­ing stead­ily since the gov­ern­ment shut­down last fall. In his re­sponse to the State of the Uni­on ad­dress, Sen. Mike Lee may have stretched it a little bit wider.

“I’d like to speak es­pe­cially to those Amer­ic­ans who may feel they have been for­got­ten by both polit­ic­al parties,” said Lee, be­fore carving out the tea party’s con­gres­sion­al agenda for 2014.

The sen­at­or fol­lowed the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s of­fi­cial re­but­tal from Rep. Cathy Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers — which struck a more har­mo­ni­ous tone — il­lus­trat­ing the GOP’s grow­ing di­vide. “The Re­pub­lic­an es­tab­lish­ment in Wash­ing­ton can be just as out-of-touch as the Demo­crat­ic Es­tab­lish­ment,” Lee said.

The bulk of Lee’s re­sponse fo­cused on the center­piece of Obama’s own re­marks, in­come in­equal­ity, al­beit with a very dif­fer­ent fla­vor. “Where does this new in­equal­ity come from? From gov­ern­ment,” Lee said, later call­ing the health care law “an in­equal­ity Godz­illa that has robbed work­ing fam­il­ies of their in­sur­ance, their doc­tors, their wages, and their jobs.”

Lee lis­ted sev­er­al pieces of forth­com­ing Re­pub­lic­an-penned le­gis­la­tion on in­come in­equal­ity, in­clud­ing his own bill that would sim­pli­fy the tax code.

He didn’t dir­ectly men­tion the gov­ern­ment shut­down, which has been at­trib­uted to tea-party push­back against Obama­care, but un­apo­lo­get­ic­ally hin­ted at it: “Un­for­tu­nately, in re­cent years, we have had no choice but to en­gage in a num­ber of protests against our cur­rent pres­id­ent’s Wash­ing­ton-centered agenda.”

“Protest­ing against dys­func­tion­al gov­ern­ment is a great Amer­ic­an tra­di­tion,” Lee said, and the tea party’s policy fights — against Obama, Demo­crats and oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans — sound far from over. Lee likened the group to the ori­gin­al Tea Party, the big loud one in Bo­ston, as be­ing cru­cial for change. But some­times com­prom­ise is key. “As Amer­ic­ans we must al­ways be will­ing to fight the Bo­ston-type battles — boldly call­ing out bad policy whenev­er we see it — but we must do so with an eye to­ward Phil­adelphia, main­tain­ing a pos­it­ive fo­cus on the kind of na­tion we want to be and be­come,” he said.

Such “protests,” however, have chipped away at the tea party’s pub­lic im­age. Pew noted in an Oc­to­ber poll that just 53 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans see the tea party fa­vor­ably, while 27 per­cent hold an un­fa­vor­able view. Among tea parti­ers, Sen. Ted Cruz’s fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ing was at 74 per­cent at the height of the shut­down crisis in Oc­to­ber. Among non-tea-party Re­pub­lic­ans, that num­ber was 25 per­cent.

The sen­at­or’s re­marks don’t just set this year’s agenda for the tea party — they out­line a plan for its mem­bers ahead of midterm elec­tions, too. His words on com­prom­ise are likely aimed at House tea parti­ers, re­mind­ing them to hold onto their seats in the GOP-con­trolled House. And his re­marks about protest­ing “bad policy” are aimed at out­side can­did­ates, push­ing them to get ag­gress­ive in their Sen­ate cam­paigns. For tea parti­ers, 2014 is about wrangling power back from Demo­crats in the Sen­ate.

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