I am not in the habit of quoting Newt Gingrich approvingly. The former House speaker hasn't changed much since he was the bulldog and bullhorn of the Republican Party in the 1990s, throwing every wrench he could into Bill Clinton's presidency. Even today his primary prescription for our national salvation is the same one-note refrain it has always been: reduce taxes, particularly on wealth.
More voodoo economics, that's all they've got.
But in a recent interview with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board, Gingrich did say something about the tea party that rang true. "The tea party people are the natural heirs of the (Ross) Perot movement," Gingrich said, and just as with Perot's followers, there will be a "natural tension" between the tea baggers and the Republican Party. For Republicans to obtain a governing majority, Gingrich continued, they will have to find a place for the tea party at a "family picnic that's pretty strange," full of folks with highly disparate views and interests.
Gingrich is posing a challenge and a warning to the Republican Party. About 75 percent of those who identify themselves as tea baggers say they are or lean Republican. The movement followers' undifferentiated anger and motivation could be a source of activism for Republicans come November.
But to co-opt the movement the Republican Party will have to figure out what it stands for, and that is going to be tricky. The tea party hasn't coalesced enough to clarify a platform beyond a fierce distaste for President Barack Obama, health reform and government debt.
When more specifics on the group's leanings start to gel, they quickly devolve into political quicksand. Last week, a couple of their leaders on CNN's Larry King Live, Dana Loesch and Wayne Allyn Root, said they would do away with Social Security if they could.
Planks like this and other similarly radical ideas such as the one floated by Wisconsin's Rep. Paul Ryan, the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, who would balance the federal budget by turning Medicare into a capped voucher program, would be a big problem for the tea party and other Republicans.
The groups would lose their seniors in an Ozark minute.
From everything I've read, the tea baggers appear to be an inscrutable mass of angry people, each with their own gripe. They want a small government, a balanced budget and tax cuts just so long as nothing touches their Medicare, Social Security, veterans' benefits, federal disability payments or unemployment checks.
Then there are people like Jeff McQueen, who was featured in a recent New York Times article about all the unemployed people in the tea party ranks. McQueen organizes tea party groups in Michigan and Ohio. He's angry because the government allows free trade, which he believes led to the loss of his job selling auto parts.
Why is a man who wants government to more tightly control the economy in a movement that seems to call for the opposite? This is the kind of all-over-the-map incoherence that will frustrate Republican attempts to corral the group's supporters.
Another foreboding aspect for Republicans of Gingrich's parallel between the tea party and Perot relates to electoral impact. Gingrich says Sarah Palin is the new Perot in that she fills the same "emotional and ideological zone." (Just change out Perot's academic graphs and charts with Palin's hand checklist.) If she ran for president in 2012 as an independent after dropping out of a Republican primary, she could clinch Obama's re-election, just as Perot's 1992 run handed Clinton the presidency.
A new poll from Quinnipiac University bears this out. It found that voters say they will vote 44 percent to 39 percent for a Republican over a Democrat in a congressional contest this November. But add a tea party candidate and the vote becomes 36 percent Democrat, 25 percent Republican and 15 percent for the tea party candidate.
There isn't much on which Gingrich and I agree, but I do think that the Republican Party will have to handle this tempest in a tea party very carefully or risk getting scalded.