Just Who Are The Tea Partiers?

The Tea Party emerged last year in opposition to the federal stimulus package and what it considers excessive government spending and taxation. The group bills itself as a bottom-up, grassroots network which isn't organized like a typical political party. Guest host Audie Cornish talks with Republican strategist Ed Rollins about this week's National Tea Party convention and the group's influence on GOP politics.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

For more on the Tea Party activists gathering in Nashville this weekend we turn to GOP strategist Ed Rollins. He's worked on several major Republican campaigns. Ed Rollins, welcome.

Mr. ED ROLLINS (Republican Consultant): Thank you, my pleasure.

CORNISH: We saw the Tea Party movement emerge last year in opposition to the federal stimulus package and what they considered excessive government spending and taxation. But beyond that, how do you characterize the group's ideology?

Mr. ROLLINS: Well, I think there's some frustration among a lot of these people that the government in Washington is not focusing on issue that mattered to them. It reminds me a little bit of the Perot campaign in 1992 when I was the Perot's campaign manager for about two months. And, you know, the movement started about three or four months before Perot actually announced. And it was a lot of disaffection about the deficit, which at that point in time is $255 billion compared to $1.56 trillion in the next - in this fiscal year. So you know, it was people who were frustrated. I think that's what a lot of this is, is people who feel that their elected representatives just aren't relating to what's going on in their lives.

CORNISH: Now, the group also bills itself as being bottom up and we've seen it as a grassroots network which isn't necessarily organized like a typical political organization. But at the same time, you've got Sarah Palin giving the keynote tonight. Do you think she might become the group's public face, or do they even want one?

Mr. ROLLINS: I think the group would be better off if they were issue-oriented. In the case of Perot, you know, he obviously was the public face and he funded the effort in '92, but he also became the focal point and when he was scrutinized as any presidential candidate would be, you know, he didn't particularly like it and it was sort of a whimsical campaign and, you know, he quit in the middle and obviously came back late and the movement sort of got distracted by all that.

I think this movement is focused very much on incumbents who are in Congress and elsewhere who may not be related to what ordinary people are concerned about. And I think its might be better to be issue driven for a while than be driven by ideology or by personality. I think Palin obviously - she is being paid do this speech. She may very well have done it for free I don't know. But I don't think it's a movement about her, I think it's a movement about deficit spending. I think it's about government getting too big and too intrusive in peoples' lives. And I think if it become personality driven, it could diminish somewhat.

CORNISH: And as you said, if it is best for them to tie their ideology to an issue and not necessarily a person, do you see the economy perhaps being that issue - is their fate tied to how the economy is doing?

Mr. ROLLINS: I think definitely what - the economy is causing great concern, and I think the deficit spending. I think a lot of Americans out there are very concerned, not just about their own lives, but about their children and their grandchildren. And I think to a certain extent when you're running up trillion dollar deficits that are projected for the pursuable future, at least 10 years in future, you know, that's a tremendous burden on young people who are coming out of college or going to work. I think that's what's got a lot of people very concerned.

CORNISH: Now, heading into this year's mid-term elections, we've already seen the Tea Party activists in various states challenging moderate Republicans. So, for instance, in Florida you've got Mark Rubio's race against Charlie Crist for a Florida Senate nomination and many people attribute Tea Party activism to the win of Scott Brown in Massachusetts for the Senate seat there. How do you think the group is affecting the GOP right now?

Mr. ROLLINS: Well, I think a lot of these people may be conservative, some maybe Republicans; a lot probably are independents. And I think the independents are now the most important voting group in America. In many cases, in many states there's a plurality of voters and I think to a certain extent that they side with Democrats, as they did President Obama, he gets elected. They side with Republicans, as they have in the past or as they did with Mr. Brown, he gets elected. So, it's a very important swing group today that's not going to be driven only by political ideology but more by a concern on issues, and fiscal issues are very important to them.

CORNISH: And lastly, will the Tea Party movement have long lasting influence? Do you see them growing into a viable third party? What sense do you have of their future?

Mr. ROLLINS: It gets awful hard to create a third party. I mean, we've had two parties since, you know, really 1860. You know, I think they can certainly be a force. I certainly think they will affect some races, but when you start organizing and trying to create a third party, a lot of times it gets very divisive among the personalities and among issues that you want to move forward on. I think there's room in this country for more than two parties and I think to a certain extent someday we may have that and there's a real need for a centrist party. But I don't know that this movement itself is going to do that.

CORNISH: Ed Rollins is a Republican strategist and senior presidential fellow at Hofstra University. Ed Rollins, thanks for speaking with us.

Mr. ROLLINS: My pleasure, thank you very much.

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