David Frum argues that independents are, "increasingly," just conservatives who have rejected the Republican brand. For this reason, he claims, the tea parties are best understood as an entrenched, established political minority, not a new coalition with the potential to offer "the basis for a national political majority" -- "at least not," he adds, "in a presidential year." And so:
The Tea Party message — cut taxes and preserve Medicare – does not make sense in policy terms and only appears to work as politics because of (1) low turnout in a congressional year and (2) the anxieties created by recession.
This is a provocative, plausible couple of claims, but let's take a step back and separate them out. Why would conservatives bolt the Republican party to agitate against taxes and for Medicare, when this is already Republican party policy? They wouldn't. A policy-centric perspective on the tea parties, and on independents more generally, makes it hard to understand who the establishment GOP has been disappointing, and on what grounds. As I've hinted earlier, independents, tea partiers, and conservatives -- groups that do overlap, but only overlap -- all tend to share the view that the two major political parties are too similar in their approach to governing. From a policy-centric perspective, that would suggest they think Republicans and Democrats offer too many of the same policies. But from a more principle-centered perspective, it's closer to the truth to say that independents, tea partiers, and conservatives think the philosophical inputs guiding the two major parties are too similar.
The important thing about the kind of voter David is describing isn't any contradictory set of policy positions -- it's a tension between principle and policy. Our national problem isn't exactly an 'addiction' to spending and entitlements, but, as is the case with addiction, breaking our pattern of behavior will be painful and even perilous -- at the level of policy. At the level of principle, however, it's clear that the alternative is worse. So some independents, tea partiers, and conservatives might find themselves in a position where they're angry about the prospect of losing entitlements that they actually don't think are the product of a sound governing philosophy.
But it seems weird to me to characterize this effect as the one that defines independent conservatives or tea partiers more broadly. What defines these two (again, overlapping) groups of voters is, I think, simply their embrace of the principle of constitutionally limited government. The effective rejection of this principle during the Bush years pushed conservatives in an independent direction and helped give the tea party movement a constituency and a reach it would otherwise lack.
Of course, none of this means that the tea party is, for now, a majority-sized national movement. Peter Lawler acknowledges this in his latest post at Postmodern Conservative, but his bottom line is different from David's. This is more than a recession -- this is a reckoning:
more and more people who are approaching retirement age now kind of know that retirement in prosperity will likely not be an option for them. They’ll have to keep working in a techno-society full of preferential options for the young. Many will be stuck with the indignity of downward mobility combined with increasing frailty or general vulnerability. We can say that older voters this time know enough to know that government can’t really promise them security, and that policies that promote general prosperity are most likely to benefit them. The great Founder of modern liberalism–John Locke–said that in a free country you’d better be rich if you’re going to get old, and, unfortunately in some ways, that’s probably more true and more difficult than ever.