Eighteen months after it was born on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange during an impassioned call to arms by CNBC’s Rick Santelli — and three months prior to its first widespread test at the ballot box — the Tea Party Movement has become the most salient grassroots uprising in America. Yet for all its influence, the most noteworthy fact about the congealing constitutionalist movement may be that even many of its supporters are unsure of its true purpose. Is it a conservative insurrection? The beginnings of a third party? Or simply a check on the GOP’s flirtations with “big government conservatism”?
Writing in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and FreedomWorks President and CEO Matt Kibbe (the closest thing the Tea Party Movement has to organizational godfathers) attempted to answer that question, declaring, “The tea party movement is not seeking a junior partnership with the Republican Party, but a hostile takeover of it.” Let’s hope Armey and Kibbe reconsider. For nothing could be more hazardous to the movement’s future.
As some of America’s most devoted disciples of the Founding Fathers, Tea Party activists should recognize that the federal government was explicitly designed to counteract sweeping change, be it ideological or interest-driven. The backlash engendered by President Obama’s left-progressive agenda should constitute sufficient proof that the American body politic rejects plans that are too sweeping.
If Tea Party activists aim to commandeer the GOP and return it to philosophical purity, they will be brought to grief. While they can perform an extremely useful function by giving the Republican Party a robust ideological anchor, the task of building governing majorities (the only effective way to accomplish public policy goals) is one which requires more philosophical flexibility than a principled movement like the Tea Party will be able to offer.
Winning majorities means winning over the political center. But that’s not what the Tea Party is interested in (nor should it be). For instance, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, one of the leading lights of the movement has said, “I’d rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who believe in the principles of freedom than 60 who don’t believe in anything.” DeMint’s broader meaning is well taken, but any political party with fewer than 40 seats in the Senate could stay home without anyone knowing the difference.
That doesn’t mean there’s no place for Tea Party members within the GOP; as some of the most articulate defenders of the party’s core principles, they are essential — both as voters and as elected officials — to Republican success. What it means is that there has to be room for others outside of their ranks. For tangible proof of this necessity, one need look no further than this year’s Senate races. Republicans can’t hope to take back the upper chamber without an assist from moderates like Mike Castle of Delaware and Mark Kirk of Illinois. Even the minority necessary to sustain a filibuster was contingent on the election of Massachusetts’ Scott Brown, hardly a conservative poster boy.
For the Tea Party to retain its long-term viability it will need to put ideas above politics. That doesn’t mean lowering its sights; it means widening them. Since the Tea Party will never be a vehicle for centrist outreach, it has to become a vehicle for reshaping the national conversation on politics. Rather than pandering to centrists, it can perform the more noble work of redefining what centrists find palatable.
There is a long and proud history of this intellectual yeoman’s work on the right. When Milton Friedman introduced the idea of school vouchers, he was widely dismissed as a crank. Today, even core Democratic constituencies are seeing the wisdom of loosening government’s death grip on the education of American children. When Ronald Reagan began pursuing welfare reform as Governor of California in the early 1970s, it was widely dismissed as an extremist reaction to the Great Society. But within a few decades, a Democratic president was touting its federal implementation as one of the cornerstones of his legacy.
Thus, it’s time for the Tea Party Movement to put its shoulder to the wheel and develop the big ideas of the next generation. Ideas like the abolition of unnecessary and unwieldy cabinet departments, market-based reforms of the entitlement state, property-rights based conservation, and consumer-driven healthcare may seem fringe now, but through consistent, honest articulation they can become the foundation of major public policy shifts in the not-too-distant future.
If the Tea Party Movement wants real political change, this is where they will start. As Margaret Thatcher said, “First you win the debate, then you win the vote.”
Troy Senik, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom (www.cfif.org).