When state Rep. Jonathan Perry, R-Kaplan, defeated Democrat Nathan Granger for a vacant Louisiana State Senate seat on Feb. 19, it tilted the balance of the Louisiana Senate in favor of the GOP. Though outspent by Granger, Perry eked out a 52-48 percent victory. In the wake of that result, one of Perry's biggest backers, the Tea Party of Louisiana, was feeling its oats. Political analyst John Couvillon of Baton Rouge called the race "the result of an energetic ground game by both Republican and conservative activists, with an additional assist from various Tea Party chapters."
Many GOP candidates went from obscurity to center stage — and some to power — in the past year, propelled by the enthusiasm of various Tea Party chapters and widespread voter anger at Washington (and Democrats). The Tea Party movement initially focused on lower taxes and smaller government (including repeal of President Obama's national health care program), but based on recent reports from across the country, the Tea Party appears to be experiencing a bit of "mission creep."
Mission creep — a military term that only entered the lexicon in the last few years — is the inexorable expansion of a mission beyond its originally stated goals. A March 2010 story in The New York Times, headlined "Tea Party Avoids Divisive Social Issues," noted, "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." That still holds true here in Louisiana, based on the written platforms of about a dozen bayou-based Tea Party groups. But Tea Partiers in other states, whose legislatures are already in session, are in the throes of mission creep — not only diving headfirst into hot-button social issues, but also betraying their own stated small-government policies. "The focus of the movement has changed to one that is much more in line with the full spectrum of conservative political issues," says D. Michael Lindsay, a political sociologist at Houston's Rice University and author of the book Faith in the Halls of Power.
For example, Ohio state Sen. Tim Schaffer, a favorite of the Cleveland Tea Party Patriots, has introduced a bill that would mandate drug tests for anyone receiving any kind of public assistance. (If that sounds familiar, it's a near-carbon copy of Metairie state Rep. John LaBruzzo's bill that would have done the same thing in Louisiana.) That's more government — not less. In Georgia, state Rep. Bobby Franklin (whose gripe with the Tea Party is that it doesn't go far enough) has proposed a government investigation of every woman in the state who has a miscarriage — "a proper investigating official shall investigate the cause of fetal death and shall prepare and file the report within 30 days." And in Montana, Tea Party-backed state Rep. Kristin Hansen has introduced a bill that would prohibit the state from banning discrimination based on sexual orientation — and make it illegal for cities to enact their own anti-discrimination ordinances and policies.
That, folks, is mission creep. When state lawmakers propose an official investigation into every woman who suffers a miscarriage, or suggest that elderly folks who get help with their electric bills be forced to take regular drug tests, they've left the central tenets of the Tea Party — smaller government, less spending — in the dust.
It remains to be seen how newly minted Tea Party lawmakers from Louisiana will behave when our Legislature convenes in April, but if history is any indication, some are sure to arrive with their own misplaced ideas of what constitutes less government. Gov. Bobby Jindal's election in 2007 predated the Tea Party movement, but he's also no stranger to mission creep. Jindal graduated with honors in biology and public policy from Brown University and campaigned as the smart guy in the race, yet he showed a willingness early in his tenure to disregard science by promoting instruction in "intelligent design" theories in public school science classes.
The Tea Party sprang to life to fight mission creep in government. Based on recent reports, the movement should be equally concerned about mission creep in its own ranks.