Friday, February 12, 2010

Whither the tea partiers?

Richard Brookhiser looks for historical parallels to the tea party movement and finds two with reaction against Thomas Jefferson's calamitous embargo against all international trade so as to avoid the depredations that the warring European powers had made on neutral shipping and the immediate bipartisan rejection of FDR's court-packing scheme. Brookhiser's point is that such public repudiations of presidential policies was based more on those specific policies and not rejecting the political party in general. These public movements did not lead to a major political revolution. Brookhiser sees today's tea party movement in line with his chosen precedents.
A political revolution is different from a political revolt and takes a lot more leg work. The postwar conservative movement's takeover of the GOP began with the nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964, led through the false dawn of Richard Nixon, and bore fruit only with Ronald Reagan's third run for the nomination.
Thus, according to Brookhiser, today's tea party efforts are not yet ready a political movement that would transform our two-party system.

I agree that the tea partiers will not become a viable third party. Our political system is too well entrenched favoring the two parties so that third parties can't build up as a national threat to gain electoral votes. We saw this phenomenon with Ross Perot who was quite a presence for a first-time candidate in 1992 garnering almost 19% of the popular vote yet no electoral votes. However, the tea party movement is less of an effort to create a separate party than an effort to yank both parties, but particularly the Republican Party back to fiscal reality. If the GOP is smart, they will listen to the complaints of the tea partiers and respond with proposed policies that seek to cut back the size of the government. There is the possibility of a natural alliance between the tea partiers and fiscally conservative, small government Republicans.

This is what happens to movements that develop outside the regular party structure such as the Populist Movement of the 1890s or Ross Perot's movement. Eventually, they get absorbed by one of the major parties.

So Brookhiser's historical examples aren't really parallel. I see a closer parallel to the reaction against the post-Watergate Democrats. The Democrats swept into office after the 1976 elections but were unable to resolve the economic woes of the period. Those economic realities coupled with the sense that Jimmy Carter was fecklessly weakening America's position in the world paved the way for not only Ronald Reagan's 1980 victory, but GOP gains across the country. The Democrats had wasted their opportunity to govern in the post-Watergate world. In the mid-1970s people mused over the prospective demise of the Republican Party soon witnessed the GOP's breathtaking comeback in 1980, a comeback made possible by popular reaction to how Carter and the Democrats actually governed.

The problem for the Republicans is that they don't have a national leader who seems poised to do what Reagan did - combine the popular reaction against the Democrats with the other elements of the Republican Party. I don't see Sarah Palin as that person. She might be able to get the votes of the tea partiers, but she just doesn't seem to have the intellectual heft that Reagan had from thinking, writing, and talking about what he believed in for around 20 years and from having governed our largest state for two terms. I don't see her bringing in that 20% of the public that is in the middle and sways national elections. And I don't see people getting fired up for Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty. There are plenty of new faces out there that people might get excited about such as Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, or even Scott Brown. But 2012 is just too early for these guys.

So rather than a national movement sweeping a new president into office in 2012, I see this exciting demonstration of people's civic involvement as a way to revitalize politics on the local level. They could be influential in electing local politicians to school boards, county commissions, and state legislatures. They can help elect people to federal office.

We don't need to wait the 16 years that Reagan had to wait from Goldwater's defeat. The internet has speeded up so much in politics to help people get information and organize. So this movement won't fade away just because the health care reform bill was blocked as Brookhiser analogizes to reaction to Jefferson's embargo and FDR's court-packing plan. There was more involved than just anger at the health reform bill. And while that feeling won't found a totally independent party, it could be an influential voice in politics for the rest of the decade.