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Tea party looks to Occupy for ways to rejuvenate GOP

David GrantThe Christian Science Monitor

If Republicans are going to bounce back in 2014, the tea party thinks it has the answer: the New Fair Deal.

A dozen House lawmakers and Sen. Mike Lee (R) of Utah – backed by swarms of activists affiliated with the group FreedomWorks – are offering up a package of about a dozen proposals on Monday that are the tea party’s contribution to how the party should go forward.

While the Republican Party proposed a host of structural and strategic changes in its Growth and Opportunity report, the party committees don’t do policy. Instead, it’s up to lawmakers and energetic outside groups like FreedomWorks to fill the void.

“The thing that’s been missing is a reform agenda that excites people and gets them in the streets, that they believe can happen,” says Dean Clancy, vice president for public policy at FreedomWorks and a chief organizer of the New Fair Deal package. “What can we do to help the guys that we helped get elected in 2010 actually restore credibility for this movement.”

What’s to get the party faithful fired up? The New Fair Deal consists of 10 bills, which will include:

Cuts to a wide array of subsidies, with alternative energy companies, sugar growers, and high-speed rail all to get the ax. A conservative alternative to Obamacare. A “flat tax” system. A private savings option for Social Security. Tax reform to broaden the tax base.

(There’s a rich irony in the name. President Truman offered the original Fair Deal in the late 1940s, a program that not only looks like a mid-20th century version of President Obama’s current agenda but is widely credited with launching the long-running liberal drive to universal health care, opposition to which inspired FreedomWorks and the tea party movement to begin with in the summer of 2009.)

Largely, the policies are mostly echoes of longstanding conservative rallying cries, although there are some new wrinkles such as a minimum 1 percent income tax (a nod to the 47 percent of Americans, made famous by Mitt Romney, who don’t pay federal income taxes) alongside two tax brackets around 10 percent and 25 percent.

What’s different is the language these tea party activists are using to describe it.

The problem the New Fair Deal aims to treat is also straight out of Mr. Obama’s 2012 playbook: fairness and ending the influence of special interests in Washington.

“Tea party meets Occupy on Main Street,” Mr. Clancy calls it. “We disagree with the Occupyers on a lot of the solutions, but we agree with them on the diagnosis of the problem.”

The starting point for a dialogue with potential supporters is: “ ‘Yeah, I’m frustrated that it matters so much who has the best lobbyist in Washington,' " says FreedomWorks spokesperson Jackie Bodnar. "That’s something that hurts everybody. It’s not a red or blue issue."

"This gets the ball rolling,” Ms. Bodnar says. “That’s our common ground.”

Still, it's a big sell. But FreedomWorks and tea party lawmakers are counting on an appeal to fairness to convince Americans to sign on to a plan that imposes a minimum 1 percent income tax on everyone, including poor Americans who now receive income tax refunds from the government, while potentially eliminating the corporate income tax altogether.

“A lot of people don’t know what they are paying now, that’s part of the problem, no transparency,” Clancy says. “This system would be more transparent. I actually don’t believe everybody votes purely on self-interest. People are willing to sacrifice for the larger good, for a system that is fairer than what we have now."

The political perils of adopting such a plan are evident to, among others, House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R) of Michigan, who at a recent Monitor breakfast noted that it would be politically untenable to do more reforms on the corporate tax code than on the individual side.

"What Mr. Camp is responding to is optics,” says Clancy, “and it’s not unreasonable to care about optics, but the group feels that [corporations are], in fact, paying, they’re paying through” individual income taxes, which the New Fair Deal could collapse to two rates at roughly 10 percent and 25 percent.

Another issue of optics: While the GOP’s post-election report emphasizes the need to reach out to new demographic groups, all of the11 House lawmakers involved in the measure are white men, including prominent conservatives such as Rep. Tom Price (R) of Georgia and Rep. Jim Jordan (R) of Ohio.

FreedomWorks thinks the 2010 election shows that no matter which lawmakers are originally associated with a policy, the power of ideas will generate support from diverse groups.

In 2010, “we repopulated the Republican Party in the House and Senate with an incredibly young and diverse new generation of fiscal conservatives,” says Bodnar, citing the example of Sens. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida and then-Rep. Tim Scott (R) of South Carolina, an African-American who is now serving out the term of former Sen. Jim DeMint, who retired.

“These weren’t people who were selected from the top-down in some sort of politically correct attempt to diversify the party. They were selected from the ground up based on the ideas they believed in,” she says.

“Tim Scott,” Clancy says, “isn’t supposed to exist. There’s not supposed to be a black tea partier who speaks positively and believes certain American values.”

For all the talk of renewal, however, there are still some long-standing problems that some of Congress's top conservative standard-bearers and one of the movement’s most resolute organizations have yet to solve.

The party wants to privatize Social Security, allowing Americans to opt into private savings accounts – but pushing for changes to the popular program, even among conservatives, is so politically explosive that the group still doesn’t have a congressional sponsor for the Social Security reform legislation.

And a willingness to flatten the tax code does have some limits: The venerated deduction for mortgage interest would be phased out over 30 years in the New Fair Deal.

Doing anything else would “disrupt a lot of people’s financial situation ... and their house is their single largest investment,” Clancy says.

It turns out that, even at their most provocative, tea partiers still have mortgages.