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Commentary: The iceberg of our discontent

Tea party activists are learning fast, generating “earned media,” staying on message, turning out the faithful.

In fact, they’re acting almost mainstream, of all things.

And don’t think the mainstream political world hasn’t noticed. Both major parties — in somewhat different ways — have realized that tea party democracy is almost certainly the most potent source of energy in the 2010 elections.

It’s becoming more and more visible.

An estimated 200 partiers stood along Route 50 the other day with placards, proclaiming their message to beachgoers.

Even vacationers who wouldn’t necessarily sign membership cards could find something to think about:

  • Fiscal responsibility.
  • Limited federal government (with some awkward exceptions like Social Security and Medicare).
  • New blood in the U.S. Congress, primarily, but coursing through the veins of the entire body politic as soon as possible.

First human contact

Organizers of the roadside informational picketing say they got lots of thumbs-ups, honking horns and atta-boys from the auto-bound audience. For some, the party leaders thought, it was the first human contact with the party.

In deep blue Maryland, you might imagine, an introduction might be necessary. It’s a famously Democratic state, holding firmly to a 2-1 voter registration edge over Republicans. The GOP remains anemic here — and its leadership has been conflicted about how to respond to what seems to be the most energized segment of the electorate.

Republicans would embrace the newcomers, to be sure, if they could be confident they were not holding a political adder to their collective breast. This week a national tea party spokesman said his group has no interest in forming a third party, judging that enterprise to be hopeless in a nation determined to maintain a two-party system.

In the long run, the party wants to take over the GOP. In the interim, influencing races will do.

You can see it here in Maryland. Gov. Martin O’Malley’s most recent television ad hits the fiscal responsibility theme hard:

“He inherited a $1.7 billion dollar budget deficit. …

“Then an economic crisis.

“But Martin O’Malley went to work.

“Cutting five billion in waste and government spending,

“… Freezing college tuition four years in a row

“… And tax credits for small businesses to create jobs.

“While other states are still struggling, Martin O’Malley is making the tough choices.”

Fears and anger

The emphasis here is clear.

One of the governor’s spokesmen, Rick Abbruzzese, says the O’Malley campaign is well aware of this year’s anti-incumbency tone from whatever corner it emanates. The campaign commercial is not aimed at the tea party, he said, but it does intend to show voters in general that the O’Malley administration has been “making the tough choices.” It has, in other words, demonstrated “fiscal responsibility.”

The governor’s focus on concerns about government is there in the language: “tough choices,” “cutting,” “freezing.” And when was the last time an incumbent admitted there was “waste” in his administration?

Abbruzzese said the tea party draws strength from the recession and unpopular measures to arrest it or moderate its impact.

“We’re well aware of the mood,” he said. “People’re looking for someone to blame. Right or wrong, that’s falling on elected officials.”

Tea party enthusiasts have been railing against O’Malley for assuming in his budget a secondary federal bailout to the tune of $389 million. It hasn’t happened, they point out.

“If we can’t get it done, the governor will make the cuts needed to balance the budget. He’s done it over and over,” Abbruzzese said.

Even a slow economic rebound will help, he said: Job growth is up and tax revenues have ticked up.

The campaign of Republican challenger and former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. believes that economic fears and anger at government bailouts of Wall Street are generating unusual energy. If Ehrlich were governor, he would be the target just as O’Malley is. It’s a case of “blame the guy in charge,” a spokesman said.

The Ehrlich camp says it finds large crowds of new faces at party rallies. The tea party, then, may be the tip of the iceberg of deep discontent.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears in The Daily Record on Fridays. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.