Monday, March 29, 2010

Being 'Too Inspiring' Is Not The Tea Party's Problem

Today's Wall Street Journal has a number of articles examining the impact of the Tea Party movement and its potential effect on several important upcoming primaries in Florida and Virginia, among other places, not to mention the November mid-term elections.

One front page article features a quote from my former law school pal Patrick Hughes, who ran a distant second to Congressman Mark Kirk in the U.S. Senate GOP primary here in Illinois:

"The problem with the tea-party movement is it has inspired too many candidates," says Patrick Hughes, a candidate with tea-party backing who was trounced by Rep. Mark Kirk in the crowded Illinois Republican Senate primary. "The movement will fail if it can't coalesce behind candidates who can win."

Leaving aside whether it's better to have your name mentioned in the WSJ, even if it refers to you as getting "trounced" (ouch), or not at all, Pat's analysis of the tea party "problem" misses the mark, at least as it played out here in Illinois, which might give some insight into the tea party's effect on other races elsewhere.

First, if we define the tea party "problem" as the fact that so far, it has been ineffective in electing a candidate to any major race that I know of (with the possible exception of Joe Walsh in Illinois' 8th Congressional District, and we can argue about Scott Brown, but we'll get to them in a minute), the biggest reason for that is that as an 'anti-establishment' movement, many people who have been recently attracted to the movement seem to eschew traditional politics and governmental intrusion on their lives, and have little experience in effecting political change. From what I can tell, many of these folks have never been heavily involved in politics at all before, aside from voting. If your primary motivation in getting involved in politics is to be left alone, likely once your anger dies down, you will go back to your normal life, which doesn't include a lot of attention or energy (or money) devoted to politics.

In general, that's the problem with 'reactionary' movements, the enthusiasm for which tends to trail off as people get over their umbrage at whatever motivated them in the first place. That's also why so-called "community organizers" (which our President spent some time as) actually have a job -- they basically need to convince people who didn't realize there was a problem (or weren't motivated enough to do anything about it) go out and mobilize for some kind of action.

The second issue is that, contrary to Pat's assertion, the tea party movement seems to have actually "inspired" few candidates. This was certainly the case in the U.S. Senate GOP primary. Of the many candidates in the crowded field, none of them originally announced themselves as the "tea party candidate" -- indeed, retired downstate Judge Donald Lowery announced his candidacy as a Republican even before GOP favorite Congressman Mark Kirk had announced, and before the tea party movement had caught much attention. Pat Hughes himself had originally branded his campaign as one of "mainstream Republican values" (and an anti-Mark Kirk) and came to embrace tea partiers only as a source of support, rather than as a fundamental affiliation of some kind. Going beyond Illinois and looking at races such as the Florida U.S. Senate GOP primary, Florida Governor Charlie Crist, the establishment candidate, is struggling with a surprisingly strong challenge from the more conservative Marco Rubio, but Rubio did not start out as a tea party candidate either. Among other strong Rubio supporters is conservative Senator Jim DeMint, who has been busy building up his own brand, with his Senate Conservatives Fund. (Interestingly, Hughes had desperately sought the endorsement of DeMint, but was unsuccessful due to Hughes' failure to present a viable conservative alternative to the more moderate Mark Kirk).

Rather than being "inspired," as Pat puts it, it seems that many candidates are simply trying to take advantage of the tea party movement as a (for now) motivated, excited base of support, while still trying to run under the mantle of the Republican party to also tap into the benefits of an established political party. Even candidates like Joe Walsh, in IL-8, who called himself a "tea party conservative first and a Republican second," still ran as a Republican and now, as the nominee, is reaching out to and embracing traditional establishment Republican support (and money). And while Scott Brown was claimed by the tea party as a major victory, the notion that the tea party movement actually was responsible for his victory is questionable at best, and now that Brown has become more correctly understood as a very moderate politician, willing to reach across the aisle when appropriate, many under-informed tea partiers improperly seem to think they were misled.

So, this brings us to the real issue here, which is that tea party movement can't seem to decide if it wants to be a traditional third party alternative to the GOP, which many of the tea party activists believe has left behind traditional conservative values, or if it simply wants to be an influential, but decentralized, political bloc, with nominal leaders like Sarah Palin channelling its energy and votes in a very personal, and largely race-by-race, manner. It's worth noting that even candidates like Rubio are still vying for the GOP nomination, and there seems to be very little support nationally for making the tea party a viable third-party alternative to the GOP. But the potential to split the Republican vote in many elections should have everyone worried. It's already happening in places like Ohio.

All of that means that if the Republican party wants to be successful this November, it is going to have to find a way to maintain its identity, while still attracting and energizing those who have embraced the tea party movement. As the WSJ points out, concerned Democrats are looking at the potential party division represented by the tea partiers, and will work overtime to exploit it:

Handicappers are predicting heavy Democratic losses in November. Democrats hope the tea-party surge will soften that blow by diluting Republican campaign coffers and pulling mainstream conservatives to the right, imperiling their chances in the general election.

"This is great news for us," says Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The DCCC has launched a Web site to highlight divisions in the GOP primaries.

Anything that the DCCC sees as a good thing ought to scare the bejeebers out of the GOP, so I am hopeful we can all figure out a way to leverage the energy and motivation of tea partiers in such a way that it adds to the resurgence of the GOP, and not torpedo it.


Anonymous said...

Team America, I am your biggest fan starting in the days when you and king louis got booted from catlady's blog, but this analysis is a pipedream. I admire your continuing faith in mark kirk and the party establishment, but the tea party is doing what we need which is holding establishment republicans accountable.

The congressman is a great man, and I am a longtime fan, but the guy has no agenda whatsoever. He has bits, he has pieces, he has a lot of fundraising and an organization give or take, but don't confuse him with a platform that's as solid as say a chuck schumer in new york, a jim webb in virginia or a demint in north carolina.

The tea parties are doing to the party what the democrats did to the gop in 2006 and 2008 which is to attack the elements of it which have gone washington. I like senator mccain but 30 years in dc and his agenda has gone stale which is why jd hayworth has him scared.

Will a tea party congressman win this cycle? Who knows. But the thing is everytime a party loses power-the gop in the 70's, the dems in the 80's and 2000's, an element within their ideological sphere rises up, challenges the party and takes it over. in the 70's phil cranes conservatives took over the gop, in the 80's the moderate clinton democrats took over the dems in the 2000's the catlady nutroots took over.

Frankly, I'd love to see mark grow some balls and become the creator of a new moderate movement within the republican party the way chuck robb became a moderate democrat leader in the 80's. Nowhere does it say he has to spend his life balancing between the demint gop and the obama democrats. He's more than capable and we need him to come up with a new brand of moderate republicanism as an alternative to hughes/demint gop.

That's better than hiding under the covers or having to put up with a hughes.


Team America said...

No problem, FOKLAEAPS, I can handle constructive criticism, and I appreciate you sticking with us all these years. It has indeed been a long time since the days when Lou and I were simply a pain in Ellen's Ellen, as you like to put it, over on her blog (and she seems to still have not gotten over it).

In any case, I'm not sure I follow the point of your comment, except that you wish Mark Kirk would rise up to be the moderate GOP's emulation of 1994 Newt and lead the anti-Obama forces to victory. Elkman is taking notes, no doubt, so your comments will receive due consideration. Maybe Mark will become that kind of figurehead/charismatic national leader someday, but first he's got to win a national election, and we can all see the strategy here.

The point of my post in the end was that since the tea party does not seem to be taking the direction of going third party to push a candidate something like Ross Perot (and remember how he managed to split the vote to give us a Clinton), then the GOP needs to bring them back under the tent, and pronto. The principles of the tea party are laudable, and I agree that philosophically it is good that there is a movement to return the GOP back to the party of fiscal responsibility and smaller government (we'll be decades undoing what Obama is expanding gov't into in only a few short years). But in terms of actually winning elections and having the power to control US policy towards Israel, cut deficits and end the nationalization of everything, unless the GOP and tea partiers can come together instead of growing farther apart, then we're all going to wind up with the United State of Europe.

Anonymous said...

Team America, you have more faith in the establishment than I do. You get to be establishment by winning and doing good things once you are in office. The current bunch is awful at that which is why mckenna, dillard, ethan hastert, and coulson all got slaughtered-as I predicted. I am not interested in seeing the tea party coopted so that some bored tool millionaire from the city can cut deals with the democrats and send us back to 2005. I don't know elkman but there's a reason dave from out in dupage county is not a chief of staff for congressman oberweis or ethan hastert. the message stunk, the candidates stunk, their values stunk, and they had no ideas.

If ron paul can lead a movement and tom tancredo can lead a movement, mark kirk can lead a movement.

I'm tired of seeing him campaign like he's the one with the failed bank of the sopranos on his resume or like he's the unemployed bed wetter from out of the district who thinks Tehran should just have its way with israel.