Was putting Paul Ryan on his ticket Mitt Romney’s way to harness the power of the tea party?
Many liberals seem to think so.
“Ryan, tea party a match made in heaven,” declared a Huffington Post headline on Monday. Dan Payne, a former Democratic strategist who now writes a political column for WBUR, a Boston NPR affiliate, called Ryan’s selection a “triumph of the tea party.”
A recent CNN poll also found that 87 percent of self-identified tea partyers in Wisconsin approve of Ryan.
As I looked at that number, however, I suspected that it likely does not accurately reflect the feelings of the most committed tea party members, many of whom are devout libertarians.
After all, Ryan voted for the PATRIOT Act, which civil libertarians abhor. He also voted for Medicare Part D, a costly prescription drug benefit pushed by the Bush administration. More recently, he voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, popularly referred to as the “bank bailout,” which struck at the very heart of the principle of the free market.
Furthermore, Ryan has not gone to great lengths to attach himself to the tea party brand. He -- like the six other Wisconsin Republicans in Congress -- is not a member of the Congressional Tea Party Caucus.
Jake Speed, the head of the La Crosse Tea Party, thinks very little of Ryan.
“I’m not a big fan because of the fact that he voted for stimulus, he voted for bailouts, he doesn’t want to balance the budget for 28 years,” says the 53-year-old small business owner, who identifies himself with what he calls the “liberty-minded” faction of the tea party movement, as opposed to those who are more accepting of foreign intervention and some curbs on civil liberties.
Patricia Kohlman, head of the Manitowoc County TEA Movement, calls Ryan an “OK” candidate. Like Sarah Palin and Ted Nugent, Kohlman would have preferred Allen West, a bombastic Florida congressman who, among other things, has alleged that “78 to 81 Democrats” in Congress are communists.
“(Ryan) has been out there (in Washington) too long. Who knows what (establishment Republicans) have talked him into?” she worries.
Ryan, she says, went along with many flawed Bush administration policies, including the creation of Medicare Part D.
Tim Dake, of the Milwaukee-area GrandSons of Liberty, calls the PATRIOT Act, which Ryan voted for on multiple occasions, “the worst infringement of civil liberties in 100 years.”
He also believes Ryan is -- like Bush -- too soft on illegal immigration.
However, Dake says he believes most tea partyers he knows will “hold their nose” and vote for the Republican ticket as part of what he calls “an incremental approach” to remaking government in the tea party’s image.
“He’s got the fiscal responsibility down -- maybe (support for the) free market as well,” he says.
The division within the tea party movement became much clearer when talking to Jim Murphy, a Green Bay activist.
“It’s wonderful,” he says, describing Ryan’s selection. “I think you’d be hard-pressed to find somebody who doesn’t think it’s wonderful.”
When I pointed out the criticism of Ryan made by Speed, the La Crosse tea partyer, Murphy dismissed Speed as a “Democrat in disguise” and the La Crosse Tea Party as a “fake tea party group.”
Murphy claims activists like Speed have infiltrated the tea party in order to cause disruption and even co-opt the organization, in the same way he says legendary left-wing organizer Saul Alinsky gained control over conservative organizations, including churches, as part of his battle for a popular uprising.
Unsurprisingly, Speed calls Murphy’s allegations hogwash.
“These people are a bunch of clowns,” he says, dismissing Murphy as a member of the “establishment wing of the Republican Party.”
Matt Batzel, executive director of the Wisconsin chapter of American Majority, a national group that trains conservative activists to run for office, says opinion on Ryan is predictably diverse.
“The tea party movement is a very large movement -- you have a lot of libertarians, social conservatives, fiscal conservatives,” he says. “I think a lot of people would want something more aggressive than Ryan, but I think most folks realize he is a good spokesman for reforming major entitlement programs.”