The tea-party movement is now one year old, and the left wing of American politics is perplexed. Why don’t these people appreciate what Obama has done for them? Obama himself appears detached and unconcerned when he tries to belittle the protesters: “They should be thanking me for lowering their taxes.” Really?
In the mainstream media, the coverage of the rallies has been a mixture of bafflement, sarcasm and slander. Lazy journalism mingles easily with liberal bias to yield sloppy reporting of the message behind the rallies.
Yet the main obstacle to the tea-party movement achieving real success – that is, achieving their ambitious goals – is not the media critics or the Obama apologists. The main obstacles to success lie in the challenges within the tea-party movement itself.
The tea-party movement encompasses not only the three or four national groups that use that name and attempt to organize and coordinate rallies. The movement includes the 9-12 Project and a dozen similar state-based groups that participate in the rallies and have a broad agenda derived from patriotic values. In many ways, the 9-12 Project has provided the guiding principle of the movement in its emphasis on following the Constitution – the Constitution of the founders, not the “evolving document” of liberal judges.
First, let’s recognize that the ambitious goals of the tea-party movement cannot be achieved in one election cycle, no matter how favorable the celestial winds. Liberal progressives did not capture the levers of power in American government in one election, and it will take at least a full generation to reverse the damage done to constitutional government over the past 50 years.
Tea-party activists do not “hate government”; they hate the misuse of government to steal from Peter to benefit Paul. The founders understood that government is a necessary evil, a necessary tool to preserve our lives and liberties in a dangerous world. When government becomes the master by abandoning all restraint and limits, as “progressives” desire, the people must remind government of its limited role and restore constitutional rule.
We face a battle over Obama’s next Supreme Court nomination. That battle is important, but we must look beyond it as well. The entire federal court system is stacked with activist judges put there by presidents of both parties. Will a future Republican president appoint conservative jurists like Roberts and Alito or liberals like the Ford-appointed John Paul Stevens and the Bush-appointed David Souter?
To the tea-party activists, the appointments battles are not over who gets to make the appointment, they’re over what kind of person gets appointed. The tea-party movement is absolutely dead-on right to insist that having an “R” beside your name is not a sufficient qualification for earning their vote or stewardship of the Constitution.
So, the important question in evaluating the tea-party movement is not the size of the crowd at the April rallies but whether the many organizations that make up the tea-party movement are laying the solid foundation needed for long-term impact and success.
I believe the answer is a qualified yes, but there are some land mines that have not yet been cleared. Some of those land mines are obvious, like avoiding capture by the Republican Party, but others are not.
Without doubt, winning control of the U.S. House of Representatives in November of 2010 is critical. And I want to see Ken Buck replace Michael Bennett in the U.S. Senate. But that will not be enough if the tea-party movement then fragments and dissolves into warring factions that cannot work together.
The last thing the tea-party movement needs is a lobbyist-dominated politburo in Washington trying to set the agenda. One national tea-party group is already trying to do that through a phony “Contract from America” that few activists have participated in. Any self-appointed tea-party leader who thinks citizen patriots do not care about Islamic radicalism, homegrown terrorists and border security is an impostor.
Activists are right to look for political candidates who are committed to constitutional limits on government power, and they are right to wage primary battles on behalf of those candidates. But after the primary battles are over, they would make a huge mistake to invest energy and support behind third-party candidates who have no chance of winning. That can only split conservative votes and elect liberals.
The tea-party movement must adhere to its principles while avoiding kamikaze behavior that dissipates its energies and its can-do optimism. The Republican Party can be the vehicle for this restoration, but only if it welcomes and embraces the patriotism and constitutional pillars of the tea-party movement.