Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Tea Party Movement Has Strengthened American Democracy

By Michael Johns

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.

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Tea Party Potential, Tea Party Challenges

By Michael Johns

The American tea party movement emerged as one of the top stories of 2009, and for good reason: the mass movement of millions of liberty-minded Americans into the political arena is the largest shift of its kind in modern times.

I was honored to play a role in the Reagan Revolution as a young man. Then, I considered myself a conservative first and a Republican second; I still do today.

Thirty years later, the tea party movement has eclipsed that era fourfold. Unfortunately, we probably are also four times as likely to see our movement spin out of control.

In fact, according to the mainstream media, we already are self-destructing. As usual, the reporters are mistaken. But America’s tea party organizations (TPOs) are facing serious challenges on several fronts.

Conservative Republican political strategist Stephen Gordon recently told MSNBC that our movement was ripe for a hijacking from the start. His reason: inexperienced tea party activists needed the help of experienced GOP operatives. Gordon wisely noted that, in the end, the professional consultants “want those email lists, they want the dollars, they want to control the organization.”

Gordon is right; we are a takeover target. Already major TPOs are being accused of lining the pockets of top-notch Republican operatives and individual entrepreneurs in the tea party movement. In Florida, three men disguised as tea party activists are flat-out hijacking the movement to promote unfit candidates.

The name “TEA Party” was quietly registered in Florida last summer and rolled out to the great surprise and dismay of state activists. Nobody had heard of the founders; nobody had met them at tea party events. Soon the party announced their support for State Senator Paula Dockery, a RINO candidate for governor, and threatened legitimate TPOs with trademark litigation if they continued using the tea party moniker.

A spokesman for the newly registered party, Doug Guetzloe, has a long and notorious record of running political trick plays and compromising on core conservative ideals. The deceptive Florida TEA Party could be used to promote Guetzloe’s clients and, more importantly, hurt their opponents. Guetzloe has, for instance, spoken supportively of liberal Rep. Alan Grayson, the Florida Democrat, who tea party activists hope to replace with a more conservative, liberty-minded candidate this November. He also has been an advocate of Dockery’s candidacy, which is requiring probable Republican nominee Bill McCollum, a solid conservative, to dedicate resources to a primary battle that would be better spent in the highly contentious general election campaign.

Worse, a U.S. Senate candidate by the name of Jorge Lovenguth has made noise about running under the Florida TEA Party in the general election. This is another clear signal, this time to both Marco Rubio and Charlie Crist, that the new party intends to be at the general election table. According to Guetzloe’s record, that means money.

In just one month, the leaders of the registered party have been quoted representing Florida TPOs in the state media and even a recent New York Times Magazine feature on Florida Senate candidate Marco Rubio. Clearly the media has been duped already; rank-and-file tea party activists need to be careful not to be next.

Fortunately, Florida tea party activists and organizations quickly united in a federal court action against the perpetrators of the new party. Their complaint against the Florida TEA Party and its founders, filed last week in Miami federal district court, asks for a declaratory judgment separating the two groups and a court order to stop the party’s threats of litigation.

The unified coalition, built so rapidly behind the lawsuit, is an indication of just how robust our tea party movement is today. South Florida Tea Party v. TEA Party proves TPOs are united when we face a common enemy out-of-step with our shared values, bent on hijacking our movement.

Because that spells trouble for liberals in both parties, they naturally want to close their eyes and pretend we are disappearing or self-destructing. We will not.

Impressively, America’s tea party movement boasts approximately five million members today. According to a recent Rasmussen Poll, a majority of Americans view the tea party movement “favorably” or “very favorably.” Clearly our upside growth potential is hugely significant to the future of American politics.

Nobody knows better than the grassroots how this movement comes alive at tea party protests, 912 rallies and other events. There is a lot of potential energy there to be harnessed. Of course, many politicians cannot resist the urge to poach. And then there’s the money. I don’t begrudge any entrepreneur, but the buyer–and the seller–must beware, especially in cases like the Florida TEA Party.

Let liberals mistake our growing pains as a death rattle. In truth, our remarkable and promising movement is sorting itself out in a healthy manner, even when facing major political obstacles, and we’re not yet one year old.

We must protect our independence vigilantly and pursue our shared goals with enthusiasm and collaboration. Every day we are not working together, we take one step forward and two steps back. With the unity we have demonstrated against the so-called TEA Party of Florida, we proved we are at our best when we stay focused on the whites of the enemies’ eyes.

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