Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan may become the first modern justice whose vetting was designed to placate people in tricornered hats. Her three-day, nationally televised comfirmation hearings gave Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee lots of air time to pander to their constituents back home. And it was clear from the get-go that their talking points weren't intended to elicit Kagan's legal philosophy (they knew she was a liberal, after all) but rather to convince the unruly tea party movement that incumbent GOP senators are the standard-bearers of constitutional conservatism.
No one actually mentioned the tea partiers during the hearings, but they were there with their pitchforks in spirit. In past Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Republicans have traditionally focused on the usual hot-button social issues—abortion, gay rights, maybe even porn for good measure. And Kagan’s hearings certainly had all of those (crush videos instead of porn, though). But many of the main Republican themes about government overreach came straight from the tea party playbook—and for good reason.
Tea partiers revere the Constitution, which is at the heart of the Supreme Court’s work. They study it like evangelicals study the Bible. While much of their understanding of the document seems derived from Glenn Beck and 5,000 Year Leap author Cleon Skousen, many tea partiers are remarkably well versed in a wide range of constitutional law debates on everything from 2nd Amendment gun rights to whether the 10th Amendment check on federal power renders health care reform unconstitutional. And while public interest in the Kagan hearings seemed pretty low, if anyone was paying attention, it was tea party activists.