Saturday, January 21, 2012

What The Tea Party Needs To Learn

The tea party movement has been one of the most encouraging developments in the political arena for a long time. When I went to my first tea party rally back in 2009, I was struck by a couple of things. One was the number of people present who made comments such as, “I’ve never done anything like this before, but I just felt I had to speak out.” Another notable point was that no elected officials or candidates were invited; it was strictly an event for non-politicians. I was impressed by how peaceful, calm, and sincere it all was. After the speeches from the organizers, we threw bags of tea into the nearby creek (with a string attached so we could pull them back out and not be litterers).

Yes, the tea party types can have a “million man” march on the Mall in Washington with no violence whatsoever, or even any rude behavior to speak of, and then leave the place cleaner than when they arrived. The “Occupiers” can’t even comprehend something like that.

And the tea party has had an impact. Their voice has been heard; they have changed the debate in Washington; some of their candidates have been elected.

One of my favorite “tea party” candidates is Nikki Haley, Governor of South Carolina. I don’t know if she was so much a tea party candidate as a grassroots candidate, but it doesn’t matter. I heard her speak at an event in D.C. not too long ago, and her story is remarkable. When she first ran for a seat in the South Carolina legislature, she defeated a thirty year incumbent in the primary election (for which the local part bosses have never forgiven her) in a true grassroots campaign with no money, no name recognition, but a lot of passion and energy. She went on to win in the general election by the same means. She was then ostracized by the career politicians in the legislature to the point of them not even giving her an office; she had to work in the hallways. The governor also was making life difficult for her, so she decided to run for governor! And she won that one, too. One of her first actions as governor was to put in place a “report card” program where she as governor rated the performance of every member of the legislature, and published the ratings. Don’t you just love it!

In spite of these and other successes, I see the tea party movement now starting to become less effective. This is 2011, not 2009; things have changed. The people still want a new direction for the country, but they aren’t as prone to simply continue going to rallies. A new approach is needed. Anti-establishment fervor is no longer enough. The movement is maturing.

Staging rallies only gets you so far. In order to really have an impact on actual government policies, you have to be able get people elected in this new, more mature, “tea party” era. The tea party needs to move from being reactive with protests and rallies on various issues to being pro-active by getting the right people nominated and elected in the first place so we don’t have to continually pressure them into doing the right thing.

Here’s the problem with accomplishing that. There are only two ways to get someone elected, beyond local elections: 1) Via the Democrat Party, or 2) Via the Republican Party.

Don’t talk to me about a third party. Yes, there are one or two Independents in Congress, but that is the clear exception. No third party candidate has ever been elected President.

Look at some fairly recent history. In the Presidential elections of 1992 and 1996, there was a third party candidate, Ross Perot. People were so fed up with George Bush the elder (of “Read my lips. No new taxes” fame – he raised taxes after saying that) that many people, mostly Republicans, bolted to Perot. In 1992, Perot received 19% of the vote, more than any third party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt and the Bull Moose Party in 1912. But it was still just 19%; Perot wasn’t elected, of course. What he did was throw the election to the Democrat, Bill Clinton, who received only 43% of the vote. That was more than Bush’s 38%, so Clinton was elected. Something similar happened in 1996 when Bob Dole was the Republican candidate, although not as dramatically. The effect of third party candidate Ross Perot was to throw the election to Clinton twice.

Today, some people think Ron Paul may run as a third party candidate if he doesn’t get the Republican nomination. If so, the result will be the same- the election will be thrown to the Democrat (Obama).

No, if you want to get elected President, or to Congress other than as some sort of an anomaly, you’re going to have to do it through one of the two national political parties.

That’s what the tea party doesn’t seem to realize. You have to have a national political organization behind you; rallies and protests won’t do it. Rallies and protests can be effective in influencing the vote of some elected officials on certain issues, but those activities won’t get you elected.

The tea party needs to bring its energy, viewpoints, and conviction into the Republican Party to influence the party establishment and move them in the right direction. The tea party needs to work within the party to get good conservative candidates nominated, and then use the party resources and organization to get those candidates elected.

Jamie Radtke, a prominent tea party activist, is running for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination in Virginia. She went on a bus tour throughout Southwest Virginia not too long ago. In setting up this bus tour, she or her campaign did not contact any Republican County Committee Chair or the Republican Ninth District chairman. She just completely ignored them. How does she think she will get the Republican Party behind her by snubbing the party activists? Even if she get’s the nomination, she can’t win in the general election without the part’s full support.

I understand the problem with career politicians and the complacent party establishment that wants mainly wants to go along to get along. But the way to deal with all of that is to build a fire under the establishment and/or overwhelm it, not alienate it.

The tea party also needs to understand that it matters who the nominee is. They need to put forth candidates who are astute politicians and who can appeal to non-tea party voters.

This was the problem with Sharon Angle in Nevada and Delaware Girl Christine O’Donnell. The tea party got them the Republican nominations for U.S. Senate, but then couldn’t get them elected because they were, well, poor candidates. Remember the infamous “I am not a witch” news conference of Delaware Girl?

All in all, if the tea party doesn’t get a little savvier and do a better job of using the resources of the established political parties, I fear it will lose momentum.

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