By Josh Eboch, FreedomWorks
(Ed. note: This article appears in the February issue of Bearing Drift Magazine.)
Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that the tea party has reached a crossroads. Gone are the heady days of 2009, when hundreds of thousands of activists, many of them political neophytes, made history with the 9/12 March on Washington to vent their frustration over government spending and bailouts. Gone also is the sense of inevitability that built steadily throughout 2010, until a groundswell of anti-establishment anger propelled tea party-aligned candidates to upset victories in local, state and federal elections all across the country. Now the changeable mood of voters has shifted yet again, with positive opinions of Republicans in general and the tea party in particular declining steadily over the course of 2011.
The question no longer seems to be whether the tea party will have a substantial impact on American politics, but whether that impact can be sustained and what shape it will take in the future.
President Obama, for one, is betting that as the movement’s novelty wears off it will provide a convenient political foil for his floundering presidency. At every opportunity his administration has sought to blame its own failures, such as lingering high unemployment and last summer’s debt downgrade, on so-called “extremism” in Congress fueled by Republican allegiance to the tea party. At the same time, and apparently without irony, pundits on the left and the right dismiss the tea party as irrelevant and fleeting, much as they have since its inception.
More than anything else, these swings in public opinion and contradictions in media perception reflect the movement’s own struggle to define itself.
As the 2012 election season begins in earnest, the tea party still identifies most comfortably with the ideological purity of its populist roots, but is also seeking to expand its electoral influence and institutionalize its minimalist philosophy of government. However, in large part, the tea party’s future will be determined by how closely its members study the lessons of their recent past.
In Indiana, for example, tea party activists suffered an embarrassing loss in the 2010 Senate primary due to their inability to compromise and coalesce behind a single conservative candidate.
Rather than allow themselves to be consumed with bitterness and mutual recrimination, Hoosier activists chose to adapt to the changing political climate by getting better organized and better trained in the fundamentals of grassroots campaigning. The result was a convention last September at which more than 85 percent of Indiana tea party groups joined together to nominate a challenger to six-term Senator Richard Lugar.
Now, rather than bickering among themselves, the tea parties’ umbrella group, Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate, is running a grassroots campaign parallel to that of their nominee, Richard Mourdock. They are recruiting volunteers in all 92 counties and have already distributed tens of thousands of yard signs, door hangers, bumper stickers and other traditional campaign materials supplied by organizations like FreedomWorks. They are even hosting their own phone banks and organizing neighborhood walks to educate Republican primary voters about Mourdock.
In short, the tea parties in Indiana have started acting as if they are working for the Republican establishment instead of trying to defeat it.
Time to Enter the Republican Tent…
Which is precisely how they should be acting. After all, three years into the tea party insurgency, these conservative activists are not outsiders anymore. Most have been volunteers on at least one political campaign and many are precinct committeemen or otherwise active in their local Republican Party. Their sophisticated use of proven campaign techniques and existing party infrastructure to replace a sitting “Republican In Name Only” Senator with a true constitutional conservative represents the epitome of the tea party’s evolving “inside/outside” strategy.
No matter what happens in the primary on May 8th, Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate has implemented an effective model for coordinated action that other tea parties around the country have already noticed and begun to emulate.
Of course, coordinated action among fiercely independent groups is much easier said than done.
In some places where coordination has been attempted, it has failed. Many tea partiers remain unable or unwilling to set aside their personal preferences or individual differences in order to achieve the kind of meaningful political change that first brought them to the movement.
Virginia is just one example of the difficulties that can arise when multiple candidates compete for tea party support without the discipline of an organized endorsement process.
…Or Take It Over?
No doubt much of this problem lies in the richly-deserved disdain many tea party activists still feel for the Republican Party.
Having been burned many times in the past by Republicans who say one thing to get elected and do another once in office, tea partiers are often reluctant to come together and compromise in support of a candidate who is not their first choice, or to seize the levers of power that control the Republican Party apparatus at local and state levels.
But unite and seize power they must.
Only by co-opting or replacing the current Republican establishment can the tea party reach its full potential as a movement and have the power to hold candidates and elected officials accountable for their actions. Obviously, this will not happen overnight or in a single election cycle, but, make no mistake, it has already begun, and it will be the key to the success of the tea party movement in 2012 and beyond.
Josh Eboch has been active in the liberty movement since 2008. He is the Campaigns Manager at FreedomWorks, where he helped to plan and execute the original 9/12 March on Washington. He now travels the country helping to organize, train and equip grassroots activists. He lives in Richmond, VA when he’s lucky enough to be at home.