By: Carl Wicklander
My friend Wes Messamore recently asked, “What happened to the Tea Party?” As the conservative base is debating between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, two veteran politicians with big government track records, the question is certainly a pertinent one, even if it’s a little late.
When the Tea Parties became a visible force on the American political scene it was originally to protest the unpopular bank bailouts, the proposed auto bailouts, and the overall growth of Washington’s claws into American life. Today it’s unclear what any self-described Tea Partier stands for.
Like all mass movements there were different elements to the Tea Party and it’s inaccurate to think of them as a unified monolith. Rather, there were different Tea Parties. There were some protesting the power Washington exercises over citizens’ lives. There probably really were a few that got interested in politics at the time the Tea Party became visible but the majority of people marching under its banner were the regular Republicans who were among President Bush’s steadiest supporters.
These people certainly were a welcome addition to the rebellion against Washington. However, it should have also been acknowledged that they were likely to return to the Republican fold when Election Day approached and even moreso as the anger and thus, the memory of the bank bailouts receded.
Political values and voting habits are developed and shaped at a young age. While it was satisfying to watch silver-haired citizens make Senator Arlen Specter sweat in the summer heat, perhaps it was naïve to believe that the middle-aged and seniors were suddenly waking up and taking an interest in politics. Older folks are fond of lecturing people about my age that there was history before 1984. As a student of history I am prepared to agree. As an observer of politics I am prepared to argue that there was a leviathan in Washington D.C. before January 20, 2009.
The first Tea Party event I ever attended was in St. Louis on Tax Day 2009. I congregated with some Campaign for Liberty members and helped them distribute literature on the cause of auditing the Federal Reserve. Aside from meeting a few Fair Tax advocates the whole event, which easily numbered in the thousands, more closely resembled a Republican Party rally than any real protest against The Establishment. The hand-crafted “Palin-Romney” presidential signs suggested that a revolt from below was not brewing.
The open, dirty secret most of us intrigued by the initial Tea Party wouldn’t admit was that the Tea Party wasn’t talking about foreign policy. Some people may today mention the domestic depredations of the Bush administration but the Raison d'être of the last Republican president was not on the home front. What the majority of Tea Partiers haven’t confronted is the same thing the Republican Party hasn’t confronted. There has been no widespread repudiation of George W. Bush.
There has been no meaningful debate in the GOP about foreign policy since Bush left office. Unfortunately, that is not likely to happen because actually having that debate would require acknowledging some unpleasant facts.
One of the strongest signs of Republican identity during the Bush years was one’s support for the Iraq war. If the party began rethinking Bush-style intervention it would be a clear indication that they were all on the wrong side of the most polarizing event of the past decade. Doing so would require a complete overhaul of party orthodoxy. Such a development is a pleasing prospect but the party's leaders, think tanks and opinion journals that supported that foreign policy are still firmly in place. And since there is little pressure from the party base to reevaluate that foreign policy there is little incentive for the power brokers and opinion-shapers to reflect on that fiasco.
The Tea Party had some success because they didn’t tread into that proverbial minefield. It was easier, safer, and more consistent with the Republican Party’s stated values to protest bailouts and violations of personal liberties.
“In 2004, the hot-button issue for conservatives was defining marriage to exclude homosexuals. In 2010– because of the Tea Parties– the hot-button issue for conservatives was the TARP bailout. In a remarkably tiny period of time, a lot of conservatives went from thinking Perez Hilton was the biggest threat to America to thinking Wall Street banking and K Street lobbying was.”
While the shift from the importance of stopping gay marriage in 2004 to protesting the Wall Street bailouts is significant, both are still well within what is supposed to be the heart of the Republican Party. The Tea Party was protesting because the party that preaches fiscal responsibility was rewarding the irresponsibility of the financial class. It’s not a long walk from implying that fiscal responsibility precludes taxpayer bailouts.
Over at the Daily Caller, Dustin Stockton, chairman of the Western Representation PAC writes an unpersuasive piece about the Tea Party’s influence. Mostly fluff and platitudes, Mr. Stockton declares that there is “no authentic Tea Party candidate in the race.” His article fails to mention foreign policy anywhere but he does open his piece by railing against “bank bailouts, auto takeovers, and Obamacare.” Except there is a candidate, Ron Paul, who clearly supports Mr. Stockton's stated agenda. I have no clue whether Stockton or his organization have a position on foreign policy but when he blatantly ignores that there is indeed an “authentic Tea Party candidate in the race,” he suggests that his stated goals don’t matter as much as the one he neglects to mention.
Ron Paul represents exactly the sort of agenda the Tea Party in its heyday said it wanted: Fiscal responsibility, big cuts in domestic spending, and a government in Washington that stayed within the bounds specifically described in the Constitution.
But yet there’s "no authentic Tea Party candidate" running for president? Romney, Gingrich, and Santorum all supported No Child Left Behind and Bush’s Medicare expansion. I have no record of Santorum ever supporting TARP, who although he supported every other of Bush's big government schemes, he may simply be benefiting from the fact that he had already been trounced two years before, but Romney and Gingrich are on record supporting them. If these others are more acceptable to Tea Partiers than Paul, who so closely adheres to what they want, then how does that not explain that interventionist foreign policy is still the issue that trumps all others?
Any sort of independent Tea Party was pretty much out of gas by the beginning of 2010. When the Tea Party was supporting Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts, one of the Republican legislators to support Governor Mitt Romney’s health care overhaul, the game was just about over.
There were still Tea Party victories in 2010 – Rand Paul’s Senate victory is probably the most notable and exceptional – but Brown’s election, and the enthusiasm shown for it, was an indication that the Tea Party was working for the Republicans, not the other way around. The Tea Party was just the vehicle Republicans embarrassed by their support for Bush could use to distance themselves from a tremendously unpopular president without having to confront any of the consequences of his presidency.
The Tea Parties aren’t dead and nothing happened to them. They are merely coming home.
Regular Columnist, THL
Articles Author's Page Website