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Attacking the Tea Party head-on would be a strategic mistake for both major parties

This week in ZDNet Government, we begin our in-depth political coverage of the upcoming 2010 mid-term elections.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor on

This week in ZDNet Government, we begin our in-depth political coverage of the upcoming 2010 mid-term elections. We're diving into more pure politics than is normally seen in this column and we'll be looking at issues of interest to every American. Given ZDNet's diverse, politically-aware audience, we're sure these articles will be fodder for fascinating discussion.

Last week, New York Times reported that members of the Democratic party and some Obama aides are considering an advertising blitz linking the burgeoning Tea Party to the Republican Party. CNN's Ed Henry quickly debunked those claims, reporting that a top White House official said the story was "simply not true."

The theory, as described in the Times, is that if the Republicans are portrayed as all but taken over by Tea Party wackos, then rank-and-file Democrats will be more inclined to go to the polls and vote against the insurgents.

Even though it's highly unlikely that this was ever considered by Democratic party heavy hitters, it's worth exploring why it would have been a major strategic mistake. In fact, it's worth exploring the issue of the Tea Party and why it seems to have caught on among certain Americans and caught officials of both political parties so off-guard.

Why the Tea Party?

The Tea Party has grown legs for one reason and one reason only: anger. Anger at the failing economy. Anger at the loss of jobs. Anger at big business. Anger at the banks. Anger at oil companies like BP. And anger at those in power for letting it all happen.

Tea Party members -- not the organizers, but the real people out there who are hurting and scared -- are a dangerous, unfocused, and unpredictable voting bloc.

Although the mainstream media has often portrayed Tea Partiers as white, racist, and haters, the fact is that the Tea Party is attracting disenchanted and terrified middle class Americans across the board.

Yes, they may seem a little more strident than your average buttoned-down Republican sporting a pants suit and Republican hair. And yes, many of them seem more Christ-y than many Democrats are particularly comfortable with. And yes, it seems like mob violence could erupt at any time.

In other words, because the people participating in the great American dialog of politics are not, this time, the well-behaved political drones we've all come to expect, the Tea Partiers seem a little more nuts than the norm.

The Dems could go all out and portray these people as fully batty and try to play to the discomfort rank-and-file Democrats feel towards this new movement.

But here's the thing. The cries for smaller government, better management, an improved economy, more jobs, and less kowtowing to the banks are almost universal desires among all Americans.

If the Democrats were to go all out to paint the Tea Party people as crazy, they'll -- by extension -- be alienating those very middle class Americans they're supposed to be serving.

If the Democrats were to try to poo-poo the worries over huge deficits that is a central Tea Party theme, they'll be dismissing worries we all have. Yes, we probably need to spend up to fight the economic doldrums, but that doesn't mean we all shouldn't hold the government accountable for how it spends trillions it doesn't have.

I'll be honest. I'm not entirely sure I'd like to go to a Tea Party rally. It seems like it'd be noisy and frenetic and more uncontrolled than I'd like.

But that's what the American political system is supposed to be all about. If the people are upset, the people should have their voices heard.

In 2010, the Tea Party is that voice.

The Tea Party is also the canary in the coal mine. It's squawking because it senses something ain't right.

Something ain't right. For the Democrats and the White House to dismiss the warning that the Tea Party is sharing with us all is (to horribly mix metaphors) living with your head in the sand.

The Democrats may not win in November. In fact, it's relatively unlikely they'll hold both houses. But if they attack the Tea Party directly, especially from the White House, they might empower a movement that could well turn around and bite them back in 2012.

The same is actually true for the Republicans. Some, like Michele Bachmann, are looking at how the Tea Party movement might merge with the Republican Party. Others, like Representative Darrell Issa are quick to draw distinctions between the GOP and the Tea Party. Republicans are, to some degree, competing against the Tea Party movement just as much as Democrats.

For both mainstream parties, the lesson is clear. Listen to the Tea Party. Underneath all that bluster is a canary with a message. Heed it.

It's TalkBack time. We're opening this up to discuss pure political issues, so opinions will be strong and tempers may run hot. Please try to keep this to a civil discussion and I'm sure we'll all be able to share some fascinating insights. As always, if you're from outside the U.S., please identify your country so we know where you're coming from. Your opinions are particularly interesting.

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