Sen. Paul is Tea Party’s best hope for political power
The Democratic Party’s triumph in November brought an abrupt end to the honeymoon between the GOP and the Tea Party, and now, like any fiery romance that unexpectedly turns sour, there’s a lot of finger-pointing as to what went wrong and who’s to blame.
Many GOP political pundits pin much of the responsibility on the Tea Party, specifically for its role in defeating GOP incumbents or establishment candidates who would have probably won in the general election. For Republicans, partisan control of Congress and the White House is the goal, and any win that helps achieve that goal is a good win, regardless of the candidate’s ideological purity.
The Tea Party sees things differently, believing that the GOP has failed because it lacks vision, which has resulted in the nomination of too many establishment candidates who cannot communicate the need for reform. And because most Americans understand the role the GOP has played in creating our fiscal problems, it is difficult for voters to trust a candidate who has long been embraced by the Republican mainstream.
From the beginning, those variances in political strategy were irreconcilable in many ways. But both sides entered the marriage willingly, appreciating the potential political advantages that each side could gain by sticking with the relationship.
The Republican Party, vanquished by the Obama revolution, was drawn to the Tea Party’s ability to motivate the base, viewing the movement as a way to reverse its recent political setbacks and create White House jobs and Hill committee chairmanships for GOP elites. Establishment Republicans thought that Tea Party members of Congress would abandon their drive for “radical” reform once they came to appreciate the benefits of “team playing.”
Tea Party leaders, however, felt that they could change their mainstream partner for the better, either by gaining voluntary converts to their brand of reform or by forcing the establishment to abandon fiscal irresponsibility. Because most Tea Party supporters had voted for the GOP in the past, many naturally believed that most other Republicans, including GOP elites, could be rehabilitated in a 12-step program.
After the 2010 election, things seemed to be on track, and establishment Republicans were willing to tolerate the boat-rocking of the Tea Party’s representatives. For its part, the Tea Party saw its strategy of increasing its numbers in both houses of Congress unfolding.
But with Obama’s re-election, the establishment’s patience evaporated and the “marriage” went south. One could surmise that political necessity will force reconciliation, but this relationship may not recover. The GOP and Tea Party have serious disagreements. That’s the 800-pound gorilla that few people have the courage to acknowledge openly.
The Tea Party is anti-establishment, offering a brand of political radicalism that would unravel centralized government. Its economic philosophy stands opposed to the Keynesianism long embraced by the GOP. Moreover, the movement calls for the devolution of power from any government — federal or state — to the individual. That type of devolution of government power is naturally aligned with social freedom, which explains why many Tea Party supporters, despite their private views, are publicly neutral on social issues.
The Republican Party, however, certainly favors centralized government when those powers coincide with the GOP’s political interests. After all, much of the transfer of powers away from the states to Washington, D.C., and from Congress to the White House was achieved with GOP support. And, of course, many social conservatives promote centralized government when that intervention supports their norms and values.
Though no one is yet seriously discussing a divorce or even a separation, the current relationship between the GOP and the Tea Party is simply unsustainable. Where the Tea Party will end up remains to be seen.
Undoubtedly, the GOP wants the Tea Party to abandon its anti-establishment “radicalism.” To further this objective, the GOP leadership is likely to reward or punish Tea Party members accordingly, as it apparently did when the Republican Steering Committee voted to remove Reps. Justin Amash (R-MI) and Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) from the House Budget Committee. And as long as the Tea Party lacks real political structure, many of its members will depend on the GOP apparatus for fundraising and additional support.
The Tea Party is adrift, confused by its flirtation with the establishment and social conservatism. In its early stages, the movement embraced conservative constitutionalism and libertarianism and remained neutral on social issues. If the Tea Party were to choose a separate path or greater autonomy, it would have to go further, embracing freedom in all areas, both social and economic. Additionally, the Tea Party would have to believe that it could win and would win elections, even against Republicans if warranted.
Such clarity of mission would require a leader with a concise vision and the ability to help the Tea Party’s political transition. It would require an articulate leader who could explain to all voters why the Tea Party better represents their values. And it would require a consistent, effective leader — someone who is engaged daily in the fight for the Tea Party’s principles and who enjoys access to a grassroots network, independent of the GOP.
The only person who could reasonably fill that role is Sen. Rand Paul. The future of the Tea Party — and possibly that of the GOP — rests on his shoulders, regardless of whether he is ready for that responsibility.
Despite being Kentucky’s junior senator, Paul is a kingmaker and has vast potential to fundraise, with or without help from the Republican National Committee. Paul is rumored to be contemplating a run for president in 2016. The GOP establishment is counting on him to be a “team player” and run as a Republican, giving the establishment Republicans confidence that they can channel him in ways they find rewarding.
We can be almost certain that if Paul were to run as a third-party candidate, the Democratic nominee would win the White House. And the senator surely understands this. That’s why it’s likely that Paul will continue to work within the GOP, bolstering his credentials as a team player while remaining dedicated to changing the Republican Party from the inside.
That’s a pragmatic long-term political strategy — but one that doesn’t square with the spirit of the Tea Party movement. If the party’s most effective leader becomes too entangled with the establishment, the Tea Party will be at risk of becoming lost and fading into the Republican mainstream, at least in the near term.
However, Paul’s future as a viable presidential candidate is linked to the Tea Party’s potency, autonomy, and staying power. In a presidential race, he would need an enthusiastic base that does not identify with the GOP establishment to propel him to a front-running position. Politically, Paul needs the Tea Party as much as the movement needs him.
The Tea Party understands that America’s shared future is, and always has been, linked to freedom in all ways, in all shapes and forms. Its devotion to that most holy American principle is necessarily predicated on limited government at every level and the devolution of power to the individual. It is an ideology that appeals to all of humanity, regardless of race or gender, and it is the only principle that will allow the United States to prosper through the coming decades and centuries. It is also the standard that will grant the nation the ability to compete against the almost certain challenge from China in this century.
If the GOP is to appeal to the majority of the nation’s citizens and compete effectively in future elections, it will have to embrace the all-freedoms ideology that animates the Tea Party. And to accomplish that feat and overcome the doubts held by many Americans toward the GOP, the Republican Party will need the credibility of a strong, vibrant Tea Party as its vanguard. If Paul can convince the GOP he can deliver that prize, he will be in a strong position to become a leading voice in the emergence of a new Republican Party that appeals to a broader demographic base.
First, though, Paul will have to take leadership of the Tea Party. The movement needs his direction if it is to make the transition into a party of economic and social freedom with greater autonomy from the GOP. By providing that leadership, Paul will help preserve and grow the movement — and in the process, bring himself closer to the White House.
Dave Banks (email@example.com) is a policy adviser to the Heartland Institute and the director of D.C. operations for the Alliance of Wise Energy Decisions (AWED), an informal coalition of Tea Party activists focused on energy and environment policy.