Thursday, March 6, 2014

Tanner, the Tea Party and You

Michael Tanner’s recent New Republic piece, Why the Tea Party's Waning Not Winning ,was posted recently on Facebook and immediately drew the fire and brimstone from the TP Faithful.  After mentioning my professional relationship with Mr. Tanner and our years of talk show conversations, some took the time to re-read his comments and lower the temperature of the rhetoric.
Still, some seemed inclined to want to go the Tar ‘n Feathers route. Out of respect and appreciation for the knowledge and information he shared with my audiences from Washington to Dallas to San Francisco (even Toledo!), I offer the following “amicus brief” in response.

Mr. Tanner correctly states the Tea Party is “waning”.

Whether it is winning could be seen as subjective. Even Tea Party “members” would have to admit there hasn’t been a lot to celebrate since the 2010 mid-term elections as far as winning key (or even many) Congressional races or scoring major legislative victories. The recent Texas primaries were a mixed bag at best, one headline suggesting a “silver lining” (not a landslide) was the best the Tea Party could muster as “Republican stalwarts  (Cornyn, Sessions) routed insurgent (Tea Party) challengers”.  Still, concedes the New York Times, the Texas GOP continues to “tilt ever further right”. I know…it’s the smarmy NYT spin. Remember, however, most all media and print publications subscribe to the NYT wire service and printed the same story verbatim. This is how “public opinion” and “public perception” is formed. As Tanner’s piece points out: “According to the most recent Gallup poll, just 30 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of the movement, the lowest level in its history.

To that point, MO posted “A word to Mr. Tanner: I would MUCH RATHER be correct on a matter of principle than stick a wet finger in the air every morning, checking for which way the wind blows!!”  And a reminder to MO: Perception is reality, especially where Politics meets Media. Indeed, you may be The Most Correct person in the room – but if the rest of the crowd thinks you’re looney-tunes, don’t be surprised if you don’t win Mr. Most Likely To Get Elected - which is precisely what this is all about.

Tanner’s piece also fleshes out the Tea Party’s “loss of message”:
              Sparked by outrage over the Wall Street bailouts, the original
              Tea Perty was motivated by an oppostion to Big Government.       
              The motto of the Tea Party Patriots, one of the largest and most 
              influential groups, was "fiscal responsibility, limited government 
              and free markets...Social issues were not part of the platform."
             
At the beginning, in my experience, the Tea Party was a spontaneously combusted reaction by Just Plain Folks. As momentum grew, the JPFs held meetings designed to bring them up to speed on the law, history, the Constitution, Supreme Court rulings – all in response and preparation to do battle with Big Government on the field of Fiscal Responsibility. Experienced professors, like-minded politicians and former office holders, gladly met in living rooms and church basements to sharpen JPF's ability to respond to boiler-plate indifference (and growing hostility) to these upstarts who wouldn’t go away and wouldn’t stop asking these embarrassing questions, demanding (!) accountability. The condescending Pelosi-Reid Obamacare Cram-Down only served to exacerbate the already over-heated situation. This was a very good thing for the resurrection of Freedom and Liberty as the core issues of assessing limited governance.

Then the Pros, Sharpshooters and Opportunists appeared; the purity of the message and laser beam focus was hijacked. As Tanner points out:

“These disparate groups might have disagreed about whether Adam and Steve should be able   to get married, but they agreed that both Adam and Steve were overtaxed and being spent into bankruptcy by an out-of-control federal government.

The “leaderless” Movement quickly begat Leaders of a type, Spokesmen and women, Celebrities from Talk Radio, FOX News and Bright Lights in the Alternative Media firmament. PACs, 501(C)3 s and 501 (C)4s sprouted together like wheat and chaf and successfully tapped in to the anger and frustration of the JPFs who saw themselves – and still do - perpetually on the receiving end of the political shaft. For the first time, the Tea Party was a burgeoning reality that spoke their language and, dammit, was finally gonna do something more than just jabber-jaw about it! That culminated in the victories of the 2010 elections. The Leaders of the Leaderless Movement took the credit (and a large share of the money).

As a result – both the good and not-so-good (above) - the Tea Party morphed from Just Plain Folks looking for ways to  effectively respond to the Leviathan into a Leviathan of their own – not necessarily of their own making; chalk it up to “growing pains”. Organizational matters aside, the exurberance of mid-term victories coupled with the grass roots lack of major league organizational skills and the invasion of the Integrity Snatchers contributed mightily to the Loss of Message to which Tanner refers. In essence, the Tea Party message was co-opted by the same genus of Special Interest Groups they railed against.  A February 2014 “Roll Call” piece raised only a few eyebrows, likely because the story received a lot less coverage than the NYT and WaPo pieces linked above. I reached out to Tea party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin to discuss the piece 3 weeks ago. To date, no response. Without a reasonable explanation, Tea Party rank and file might get the idea they’ve been had – or a least their copious donations have gone for “things”, not candidates.

The Leadership/Message issue – or more accurately the Lack of Leadership/Mixed Message issue – is at the heart of the Tea Party problem. Born out of the passion of Rick Santelli’s famous rant, the Tea Party and its supporters still have the passion – but, as Tanner writes:

“Americans tend to dislike confrontation from their political leaders. Certainly, things like the government shutdown tended to turn off some voters, especially when misrepresented by a biased media. The overheated rhetoric of some tea-party leaders may also drive away otherwise sympathetic voters. Calling every dissenting Republican a RINO or inferring that President Obama is some sort of crypto-Muslim Communist is not going to win friends or influence people. Some tea-party activists definitely come across as a bit over-caffeinated.”

Put another way: Repeatedly calling John McCain a RINO is, at best, redundant and worst, self-serving. We heard it the first 10,000 times. Spend that energy working to get him outta there. Ditto the Obamamantra. So what if he IS a crypto-Muslim Commie? Who hasn’t heard it and heard it and heard it? More importantly, assuming it’s true: who among us is doing something about it? (Hint: “Just 3 more years” is a dumb answer) If the energy to produce that much vitriol was channeled into working for the campaigns of like-minded candidates – or just educating ourselves on the finer points of Constitutional governance so we might explain it better to our neighbors and ourselves, Freedom, Liberty and the salvation of the Republic would be much better off.

To the Unconvinced and Unconverted this is a big issue:
“But the Tea Party has drifted away from its strict economic-conservative origins. Yes,                       opposition to Obamacare and government spending remain priorities. But increasingly issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and immigration have become the tail that wags the dog.

That’s not a good thing.

At bottom, the Federal government has no authorization to meddle in what we colloquially refer to as “social affairs” or State issues.  As Tanner noted above, disparate groups can mutually – and enthusiastically – agree on the issues driving the country to the brink: government spending, the economy stupid and massive unemployment. When remembering those roots of economic conservatism, everyone from any Tea Party- friendly persuasion can agree these need CPR – and fast – regardless of the passions surrounding gay marriage or the never-ending abortion debate. This is not to disparage those issues or dis those with a principled passion for them. It’s a matter of focus: Economy, Jobs, Health Care effect everyone and those with compelling, logical, Constitutional solutions are attractive to reasonable people who vote. Abortion and gay marriage invariably create rancor and discord, have zero to do with governance and ultimate turn off voters otherwise generally agnostic to issues that don’t effect them. The polling numbers Tanner cites above are part of the proof.

The original Tea Party message resonates even more today than the Day of Rick’s Rant! Remembering that all politics is local, organized, well-informed, focused hometown Tea Party groups can still – and must -  “…tap into grassroots mistrust of the Washington establishment. Its ability to mount primary challenges will keep Republicans from straying too far from its agenda. But if it hopes to regain the power it once had to reshape the American political landscape, it should remember why it started in the first place.

As my old basketball coach used to say when we were down 50 points with 3 quarters left to play: “We gotta go with what we got.”. But the Tea Party holds a winning hand with a simple message that resonates with a huge, winning majority– if properly played. Don’t snatch Defeat from the jaws of Victory. Establishment DC Republicans have mastered that one. Staying focused, on message and executing the basics is the way to re-capture the momentum and the power to win. 

If you want…

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