Within the American political establishment, the mammoth growth of the tea party movement has invoked a series of reactions and emotions. It was first ignored, even as thousands of Tea Party rallies drew large, passionate crowds across the nation. When its size and influence ultimately became too large to neglect, it was wrongly and inaccurately maligned. Then, when the malignments also largely failed, they questioned whether the movement actually had the political skill and influence to tangibly impact major elections.
Now that the movement has sent established political figures packing in multiple states, a new thesis critical of our movement has emerged: That the tea party movement is somehow bad for the Republican Party. Like the criticisms that preceded this one, however, this thesis is wrong. While the tea party movement is a decidedly non-partisan one, it has served the very constructive ends of enhancing debate and political competition within the Republican Party. Faced with tea party opponents, many established Republican incumbents and challengers have been forced to address policy issues with greater specificity, and the result has been a healthier political climate in which primary voters have been afforded broader choices.
This has proven true in multiple races across the nation. At the New York Republican Convention in early June, New York Republicans first looked over tea party-recruited candidate Carl Paladino (R-NY), instead selecting a former U.S. Representative who had abandoned conservative principles on multiple occasions and failed in a prior statewide election. But instead of allowing the selection of Republican insiders to stand, the tea party movement, along with many principled conservative Republicans throughout the state, led a petition drive for Paladino, ultimately landing him on the Republican ballot anyway. By the time the September 14 primary arrived, Paladino had made the case for his candidacy convincingly. Showing that the Republican establishment had made a selection contrary to the will of the people at its party convention three months earlier, Paladino trounced challenger Rick Lazio in a 62% to 38% landslide.
In advancing the inaccurate thesis that the tea party movement is bad for the Republican Party, the race perhaps most cited has been the United States Senate race in Delaware, where tea party favorite Christine O'Donnell (R-DE) upset her challenger, former Delaware Governor and U.S. Representative Mike Castle (R-DE), 47% to 44% in the September 14 primary. With strong tea party support, O'Donnell convincingly persuaded many Delaware Republicans that the most effective way to stop the Obama agenda was not sending Castle, who had supported federal bailouts, was sheepish in his opposition to Obamacare, and had earned the lowest possible rating on his protection of Second Amendment rights, to the U.S. Senate. Castle also arrogantly refused to engage O'Donnell in debate prior to the primary election. In the end, Delaware Republicans properly saw Castle as exactly the sort of elitist political figure who was incapable of halting the progressive agenda in Washington and represented many of the exact sentiments and policies that were wrong with the political status quo. O'Donnell faces an uphill battle in her general election campaign against Democrat Chris Coons, but at least Delaware voters will now be afforded a legitimate choice between two very contrasting political figures, including one, in O'Donnell, who very clearly will oppose the Obama policy agenda.
In similar primaries, tea party-supported candidates have connected well with voters, winning in states as diverse as Alaska, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Nevada, Utah, West Virginia, and others.
The success of the tea party movement represents a hugely constructive change in American politics. For many decades now, both political parties have operated on a "next in line" nominating process. This process suspends any serious consideration of a candidate's position on issues and instead dictates that those with the longest-standing service in government warranted the nomination on that basis alone. It is exactly this sort of logic that led a select few Republican insiders to favor candidates like Rick Lazio in New York and Mike Castle in Delaware.
But what such an approach fails to recognize is that the selection of good candidates must always consider much more than simply the longevity of service of that candidate in government. Elections are and must continue to be about ideas. In fact, given the failure of government to constrain spending and taxes and its obvious inability to create a climate for national economic growth and prosperity, one might go further in saying that longevity of service in that system is a detriment, not a credential, to an aspiring candidate. The other ancillary benefit created by the tea party movement's preference for issue-based candidates over governmentally credentialed ones is that it permits, as our founders intended, candidates unaffiliated with government a better opportunity to enter and prove competitive in elections. Surely, the nation would be served well by drawing fewer career politicians and more candidates from non-political professions, such as medicine and business.
A final point: It is held by some that the key to political victory is diluting the liberty-based message in ways that create a "big tent." On the surface, this approach might seem sensible, but in reality the big tent that has proven most appealing to voters is a platform that is predictably aligned with limited government, lower taxes, and strict adherence to our Constitution. In support of this, one need look no further than the Presidential races of the past three decades to see that principled conservatives fare well politically, while less principled Republicans tend to struggle. In 1980, 1984, 1988, 2000, and 2004, Republican Presidential candidates Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush ran on unequivocal conservative platforms and won. In 1992, 1996 and 2008, Republican nominees presented political records and platforms that were less clearly conservative and lost by large margins.
The lesson should be self-evident: Liberty works as policy, but it also works as politics. In embracing candidates who enthusiastically support the liberty-agenda, the tea party movement has strengthened American political discourse and democracy. The movement also has increased the likelihood that the Republican Party will put forward candidates and policy agendas that resonate with the American people.