When he campaigned for President, Barack Obama used a slogan, “Change We Can Believe In,” which also served as the title of the book he published before the election outlining his plan for America. Change in our public policies is very gradual, sometimes frustratingly so, but the promise of change by candidates and demands for change by voters figure prominently in most of our elections. This year’s midterm elections are no exception. The vehicle for that change comes in the form of the so-called Tea Party movement.
Elements of the Tea Party movement began to form within a month of President Obama’s inauguration, primarily in response to his signing of the stimulus bill and his announced plan for further mortgage assistance to struggling homeowners. At the time, the Republican leadership in Congress was an unlikely champion for the movement – both deficit spending and further government intervention in the housing market had strong bipartisan support.
With the guidance of Republicans outside the party’s Washington inner circle and some other conservative figures, the Tea Party movement has used the most natural vehicle available to exert its influence. It has been putting pressure on the Republican Party to move its agenda toward Tea Party positions. The movement’s effects can already be seen in the results of a number of Republican primaries for the House, the Senate, and governorships.
There is a good chance that the Tea Party movement will play an important role in the November elections. It is the history of our political process that the party that controls the White House tends to lose seats in Congress in the midterm election, particularly when the President’s popularity is unsteady. This was the case in both 1994 and 2006, when control of the House and Senate switched parties. In the late summer of 2010, experts were estimating a 79 percent chance of the Republicans capturing a majority in the House of Representatives, with an expected 50-seat loss by the Democrats.
The separation of powers in the national government provided by the Constitution, along with the important role of state and local governments, ensures that movements have to build outside of government before they have an impact on government. If the Tea Party movement can go from its creation to a decisive impact in one election cycle, it will be an impressive display of how change comes to politics – if not to policy – in our system of government.
Andrew A. Samwick is the Director of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences, the Sandra L. and Arthur L. Irving '72a, P'10 Professor of Economics at Dartmouth College, and a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. In 2003 and 2004, he served as chief economist on the staff of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers.
Since joining the Dartmouth faculty in 1994, his scholarly work has covered a range of topics, including pensions, saving, taxation, portfolio choice, and executive compensation. Professor Samwick has been published in American Economic Review, Journal of Political Economy, Journal of Finance, Journal of Public Economics, and a number of specialized journals and conference volumes. He graduated summa cum laude with a degree in economics from Harvard College and received his Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He blogs about economics and current events at Capital Gains and Games.