Tea Party Avoids Divisive Social Issues

By KATE ZERNIKE, New York Times

For decades, faith and family have been at the center of the conservative movement. But as the Tea Party infuses conservatism with new energy, its leaders deliberately avoid discussion of issues like gay marriage or abortion.

God, life and family get little if any mention in statements or manifestos. The motto of the Tea Party Patriots, a large coalition of groups, is “fiscal responsibility, limited government, and free markets.” The Independence Caucus questionnaire, which many Tea Party groups use to evaluate candidates, poses 80 questions, most on the proper role of government, tax policy and the federal budgeting process, and virtually none on social issues.

The Contract From America, which is being created Wiki-style by Internet contributors as a manifesto of what “the people” want government to do, also mentions little in the way of social issues, beyond a declaration that parents should be given choice in how to educate their children. By contrast, the document it aims to improve upon — the Contract With America, which Republicans used to market their successful campaign to win a majority in Congress in 1994 — was prefaced with the promise that the party would lead a Congress that “respects the values and shares the faith of the American family.”

Tea Party leaders argue that the country can ill afford the discussion about social issues when it is passing on enormous debts to future generations. But the focus is also strategic: leaders think they can attract independent voters if they stay away from divisive issues.

“We should be creating the biggest tent possible around the economic conservative issue,” said Ryan Hecker, the organizer behind the Contract From America. “I think social issues may matter to particular individuals, but at the end of the day, the movement should be agnostic about it. This is a movement that rose largely because of the Republican Party failing to deliver on being representative of the economic conservative ideology. To include social issues would be beside the point.”

As the Tea Party pushes to change the Republican Party, the purity they demand of candidates may have more to do with economic conservatism than social conservatism. Some Tea Party groups, for instance, have declined to endorse J. D. Hayworth, who has claimed the mantle of a fiscal conservative, in the Republican Senate primary in Arizona. But these groups find his record in Congress no more fiscally responsible than the man he seeks to oust, John McCain.

The Tea Party defines economic conservatism more strictly than most Republicans in Congress would — the Tea Party agrees about the need to do away with earmarks, but the Contract, for example, also includes a proposal to scrap the tax code and replace it with one no longer than 4,543 words (a number chosen to match the length of the Constitution, unamended.) It would limit the growth of federal spending to inflation plus the percentage of population growth and require a two-thirds majority for any tax increase.

Social issues still pack a wallop: a group of Democrats opposed to abortion rights could determine the fate of health care legislation in the House. And Republicans at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month, while celebrating the Tea Party for energizing their movement, spent much of their time talking about banning gay marriage and overturning Roe v. Wade. “God’s in charge,” Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota told a cheering crowd.

Tea Party leaders themselves have found it hard to keep the issues out. The inaugural Tea Party convention, organized by the social networking site Tea Party Nation, featured remarks by fervent opponents of gay marriage and abortion rights, including the Baptist pastor Rick Scarborough And some leaders criticized Sarah Palin — normally a Tea Party favorite — for advocating “divine intervention” to help the country.

Jenny Beth Martin, the leader of the Tea Party Patriots, complained that she spent the days after the convention answering questions about social issues.

“When people ask about them, we say, ‘Go get involved in other organizations that already deal with social issues very well,’ ” she said. “We have to be diligent and stay on message.”

Many Tea Party members do embrace those issues. The subset of Tea Party organizations known as 9/12 groups, founded by Glenn Beck, asks members to embrace seven of nine principles, the second of which is “I believe in God and he is the center of my life.”

Some experts, like Lisa McGirr, a professor of history at Harvard and the author of “Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right,” say that the Tea Party uses a kind of code to talk about social values. For instance, when they emphasize a return to the strict meaning of the Constitution, they interpret that as a return to a Christian foundation.

“When they talk about returning to the values of the Founding Fathers,” she said, “they are talking about life as a social issue.”

Tea Party leaders champion states’ rights, holding dear the Tenth Amendment, which restricts the role of the federal government. The Independence Caucus questionnaire, for instance, asks candidates for their views on Wickard v. Filburn, a Supreme Court decision that Tea Party groups say has been used to vastly expand federal powers. (Roe v. Wade does not come up.) So while some may oppose gay marriage or abortion, they want it left up to states to decide. Nor do they support any abridgement of the right to carry guns.

But when the Sam Adams Alliance, a Tea Party-friendly conservative organization in Chicago, surveyed 50 leaders of the movement about the most important direction for the movement, none selected social issues. Most said “budget” or “economy/jobs.”

While social conservative movements grew out of churches, the Tea Party has built its numbers online. Advocacy groups that have helped grow the movement, like Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Works, have also emphasized the importance of focusing on economic conservatism.

Raising social issues, the movement’s leaders say, risks fracturing the strength it has built. “Every social issue you bring in, you’re adding planks to your mission,” said Frank Anderson, a founder of the Independence Caucus, based in Utah. “And planks become splinters.”

They also recognize that support for gay marriage has increased, particularly among the young, and so opposing it may alienate supporters.

At a candidate forum sponsored by the Kitchen Table Patriots in suburban Philadelphia in January, nine candidates, mostly first-time politicians seeking office after getting involved in the Tea Party, were asked whether they believed that Roe v. Wade should be repealed. Only one said yes.

“I think that it’s also going to get Democrats over, if you’re not so rigid,” said Anastasia Przybylski, the co-founder of the Patriots. “I have friends where that’s a big turnoff — they’re registered Democrats because of abortion but they’re totally freaking out about the debt.”

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