|Will the Tea Party End in 2012?|
By Troy Senik
Friday, January 20 2012
Over the course of the past three years, the Tea Party movement has reshaped conservative politics in America. By the closing days of the Bush Administration, the GOP was lost in a philosophical morass, having ceded ground to “compassionate conservatism,” runaway spending and government bailouts. Then, in early 2009, in an impassioned speech from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Rick Santelli changed everything. His stirring rhetoric – the birth pangs of the Tea Party movement – was more than a call to arms. It was the primal scream of a suppressed desire for limited government.
The intervening years have presented a challenge for the Tea Party: translating that scream into paragraph form. The righteous rage that accompanied bailouts of everyone from imprudent financiers to overcommitted homeowners gave the movement an emotional touchstone, but it didn’t provide much in the way of a roadmap going forward. For that, the Tea Party would require a new generation of politicians devoted to restoring the constitutional order from the halls of Congress.
With the landslide Republican victories in the 2010 midterm elections, that necessary next step began to take shape. And the fingerprints of the Tea Party zeitgeist could be seen throughout Washington. Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan – previously considered a visionary whose views were ahead of his time – found his message about the importance of market-driven entitlement reform becoming an article of mainstream Republican faith.
The notion of Keynesian stimulus spending, which had been dominant at the time of Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, fell into such widespread disfavor that even its most ardent proponents dared not refer to it by name. Even Congressman Ron Paul – previously regarded as eccentric at best and deranged at worst – found traction for some of his ideas, such as auditing the Federal Reserve. It looked as if the Tea Party’s message was here to stay.
Then came the 2012 Republican presidential contest. Unsatisfied with the field of candidates who presented themselves for the nation’s highest office, Tea Party supporters found their loyalties divided and frequently shifting. At various stages of the race, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum all enjoyed brief periods of appearing to be the anointed candidate of the advocates of limited government. But each ended up being subject to a decline as precipitous as their rise.
Now, with the race approaching the stretch, even contemplating the current Gingrich sprint, it still seems likely that former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney could end up as the Republican presidential nominee – a fate that inspires dread in the hearts of many tea partiers. Over the course of his political career, Romney’s views have run the gamut of the ideological spectrum. In the past, he has disavowed Ronald Reagan – the modern president most in the step with the Tea Party’s philosophy – from the campaign stage. As governor of the Bay State he signed into a law a health care reform bill that provided the ideological and instrumental template for ObamaCare – the cardinal sin of the current administration in the eyes of those who would see the powers of the federal government reined in.
The anxiety this has produced amongst Tea Party supporters can’t be overstated. What good, they frequently ask, is their movement if it can’t produce a potential president at least broadly sympathetic to their aims? In tones of despondence, many wonder if a Romney nomination risks ending their quest for limited government in its infancy.
That melancholy is premature. Tea Partiers would do well to heed the words of one of their ideological forbears, the great economist Milton Friedman, who said, “It’s nice to elect the right people, but that isn’t the way you solve things. The way you solve things is by making it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right things.”
With a Romney nomination looking inevitable, Friedman’s insight should become the Tea Party mantra, and the movement’s goal ought to become breaking him to the saddle of their cause. Doing so will require electing more of their ideological kinsmen to Congress, where they can provide a meaningful check on Romney’s occasional statist impulses (or, heaven forbid, continue to bottle up Barack Obama’s relentless drive to expand the power of the state). And it will require consistently letting Romney know that their support is conditioned on his fealty to their animating principles.
It’s entirely possible that the Tea Party could become irrelevant through the gravitational pull of a presidential candidate who doesn’t share their sensibilities. But that irrelevance is a choice. It would be far better to ensure that such irrelevance is reserved for those who are unwilling to adhere to their principles – that government ought to be limited, that public office represents a temporary and conditional grant of power from the sovereign people and that liberty is the unalienable right of every man and woman fortunate enough to be able to call themselves Americans.
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