Freshen your tea?

Jared Whitley Contributor
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The stage is set for the forthcoming elections, and the orchestra’s engaged. Now it’s time to see if the Tea Party can actually dance.

Election Day will certainly not be a 1994-esque tide of red. Tea Party candidates face varying degrees of electability, including those who will win (Mike Lee, Utah), will probably win (Marco Rubio, Florida), could win (Sharron Angle, Nevada), and will not win (Christine O’Donnell, Delaware).

But the number of Tea Party candidates who win won’t be the measure of the movement’s longevity; it will be how well those who are elected govern. Certainly, “we campaign in poetry, but we govern in prose,” and the Tea Party’s emphasis on slogans like “we need to cut the size of government” is more substantive than vague promises of “hope” and “change.” But if the Tea Partiers cannot articulate and implement a coherent plan for national government, they will paralyze Republican chances to legislate in 2011, and kill a Republican’s chances to win in 2012.

A Job interview

The electorate is angry with both parties over the economy, and wholesale attacks on federal programs may miss the point — today’s economic problems have complicated origins, and the federal government is not the moustache-twirling villain responsible for it all. Cutting government programs will not improve the economy when what’s needed is unified federal action to reduce the tax rate on capital gains and restore the value of the dollar.

Tea Partiers that win — and want to keep winning — need to focus on growing the economy and avoid pet projects like shutting down the Department of Education. (The GOP can’t even agree on earmarks, so the idea of slashing entire agencies is a recipe for intra-party gridlock.)

Conservatives need to remember that when they are running for office they are essentially applying for a job. They must ask themselves, “If someone were interviewing me for a job, would I spend half the interview bad-mouthing the company?”

Granted, the mantra that “the federal government is too big” has been an article of conservative faith for decades. And while the Tea Party has been enthusiastic to latch onto this anti-federal rhetoric, it’s largely missed the historical context. This was most profoundly demonstrated at the “Restoring Honor” rally, where thousands of advocates for states’ rights worshipped at a temple to federal supremacy: the Lincoln Memorial.

A federal case

Lincoln would not have championed the notion that state government should always trump the federal government. He waged war against states that wanted to secede from the union and nullify federal law. He knew the only way to stop slavery was force. Hence Martin Luther King Jr. chose the Lincoln Memorial for his “I have a dream” speech — to plead for federal intervention against abuses by state and local governments.

And that’s the problem with the myopic view of “federal bad, state good.” Sometimes you just need the federal government!

But this nuance is lost as Tea Partiers — understandably upset with a soaring national debt — endlessly quote the Reagan doctrine that “government is the problem.” But it’s important to keep in mind that Ronald Reagan’s exact words, at his first inauguration, were: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.” His admonition was not against the federal government; it was against the Democratic Party, which had enjoyed virtually uninterrupted control of Congress since the 1930s.

And this is the key to understanding Tea Party rage: When Tea Partiers say “government is the problem,” they’re pointing at their fellow Republicans.

Republican rage

The nemeses of the Tea Party are not President Obama and the Democrat-controlled Congress, but the Republican-controlled Congresses of the 1990s and 2000s. Tea Partiers want to attack Democratic deficits, but they can’t ignore Republican deficits, so they scourge their own record while trying to keep the Eleventh Commandment to “not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”

The best example of this rage against the Republican Party is in Utah, one of the most reliably conservative states in the country. Thousands of conservatives rallied to unseat Sen. Bob Bennett, but none of that furor has been turned against Rep. Jim Matheson, for years the state’s only Democrat in Congress.

Earmarks have proven a safe Tea Party target, but the most popular whipping boy in this self-flagellation is No Child Left Behind, seen as an unacceptable broach of federal power that reached over states’ sovereignty and right into our children’s minds.

The only problem is NCLB wasn’t any such overreach. Participation was optional, according to the will of state legislatures, and the program’s signature high-stakes tests were developed by states’ boards of educations for their respective student bodies — not the Department of Education. The effectiveness of NCLB can be questioned, but (in this regard) its intent cannot.

The one universally regarded failure of recent Republican governance, admitted with candor even by President Bush, is the stalled federal response to Hurricane Katrina. And here the federal government failed to show enough power, not too much, while state and local governments failed to show any real power at all.

If the Tea Party is to have any lasting effect on either the Republican Party or the nation, it must develop adequate philosophical nuances regarding the role of the federal government. But that may not be the goal. The insistence on soul over substance could instead indicate a deeper psychological trauma that no amount of group therapy sessions can cure: that conservatives just don’t really want to run the government.

This is a problem liberals are more than happy to solve for them.

Jared Whitley is a communications veteran of the White House and the US Senate.