It's a legitimate question after self-described conservatives resurrected Rick Santorum's political career in Iowa and virtually ended the presidential aspirations of Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann.
Most movement conservative leaders -- Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill Kristol, Sarah Palin, Erick Erickson, you name it -- talk of the Tea Party as a constitutionalist small-government force, a reaction to the Obama presidency, yes, but in many ways, a repudiation of eight years of Republican misrule.
But why would a movement obsessed with shrinking the size and scope of the federal government vote in a plurality for Rick Santorum?
I've written before that my biggest problem with the tea party is that, with several gleaming exceptions (Rand Paul, Mike Lee, etc.), its small-government critique ends at the water's edge. When it comes to civil liberties, executive power, unconstitutional wars and nation-building, there is nothing remotely "small-government" about the likes of Palin, Limbaugh, Marco Rubio or Eric Cantor. In some cases (Rubio) "tea partiers" advocate for an expansionist, imperialist foreign policy more befitting of a Woodrow Wilson Democrat than a Ronald Reagan conservative.
Minimally, even if tea partiers don't expressly advocate for a Wilsonian foreign policy like Rubio does, tea partiers willfully blind themselves to the extremism of the Bush administration on these policies and how extra-constitutional the imperial executive has become.
But what most polling generally demonstrates is that even on domestic or economic matters, the tea party is nothing more than the Republican base writ large.
Case in point: Santorum voted for the largest expansion of the welfare state since the Great Society, voted to authorize the federal government to intervene in the Terri Schiavo fiasco, voted five different times to raise the debt ceiling, has a torrid history of being tied to lobbyists, supported federal intervention in education policy and was a congressional leader during the Bush era when deficits began to spiral out of control. There is nothing remotely conservative or "small government" about Rick Santorum's domestic political record. Yet in a 7-way vote, Iowa Republicans who "strongly support" the tea party voted in an overwhelming plurality for Santorum. The second-biggest beneficiary of their support? Newt Gingrich at 17 percent, whose big-government record has been rehashed ad nauseum.
As Will Wilkinson noted in this smart post, perhaps Iowa conservatives don't know much about Santorum's big-government record. But the support for Santorum over someone like Ron Paul demonstrates that -- at least in Iowa -- the tea party can be bought by using anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, "pro-family" rhetoric, regardless of whether the candidate has a record of actually attempting to limit government at all.
Recent South Carolina polling also shows a weird trend. In this CNN poll released Friday, respondents who said they support the tea party supported Romney -- universally regarded as the field's "moderate" even back in 2008 -- at a rate of nearly one in three. Gingrich -- again whose record of expanding government, sometimes unconstitutionally so, needs no introduction -- was at 23 percent and Santorum at 20. These are perhaps the three most notorious big-government Republicans not just in the field, but in the entire country, and three out of four South Carolina tea partiers support one of them. Perry, by contrast, garnered just 6 percent of the tea party's support. This is absurd.
The only conclusion I can draw from this data is the same conclusion many liberals have reached: That the tea party is nothing more than a subset of the partisan Republican base, simply dressed up with new phraseology. This conclusion isn't intended to be hostile or pejorative, but rather is based on my evaluation of the voting records of the candidates self-described tea partiers say they support.
Especially now that Bachmann is out of the running, and with the possible exception of Santorum, I'll be voting for whoever the GOP happens to nominate. But let's stop kidding ourselves about the tea party.