Is the Tea Party an alien waiting to burst inside the GOP?
Tea Party candidates emerged victorious in many of their primary races. Come General Election, Republican ballots will reflect the Tea Party tilt. I'm not sure if they're any Democratic Tea Party candidates. As a matter of fact, I'm not sure if Tea Party candidates are Republican candidates, or that the Tea and Republican Parties can exist under the same roof.
The beauty of the Tea Party is that any and all can claim membership. Like a snake's skin, people can cast off essentially meaningless party affiliations and become TP'ers. Breaking the shackles of conformity to a two-party system is most definitely needed in an era of very limited choice yet the Tea Partiers seem intent on change the GOP from within, a radical transformative process that appears to be working as TPers win nominations.
Being new, the Tea Party is subject to interpretation by the descriptor. We can't say Tea Party candidates all behave the same, which raises the issue of how firmly Party members should conform.
TPers do seem to want to return to some utopian ideals not that different from religious colonies in America early in our history. To a purer and more fundamental existence, not an unappealing offering in times of great fear and uncertainty in a backdrop of great, rapid change.
Early Protestant missionairies built on the idea of a "citte upon a hill," a place where people could live free of government intolerance and practice religion in any form they see fit, away from all the tired old rivalries of Old Europe and the persistent oppression. America was founded on this premise, the premise of freedom.
For now the Tea Party offers an open tent--a populist style of tolerance typically ascribed to the Democratic Party. As the Party's non-existent platform takes shape, the tent will shrink as the party platform hardens.
Compromise is vital in politics. We all agree to disagree for the benefit of shared political goals. A willingness to bend is required for compromise. Like amateur politicians, TP candidates may be too committed to their ideals to be open to compromise. They may see where they stand on issues as immutable, closed to discussion. This is a mistake as the firmness of one's position needs to be tempered by the practical limitations imposed by politics. Getting it done isn't as simple as "git-r-done" although the latter does seem simpler and easier to achieve.
Real government requires compromise, attention to detail, and nuanced reflection. The whole point of the Tea Party is that they're un-sanitized. They're a messy, pickup-driving, trash-talking, sitcom-watching bunch with no goal higher than letting you be you within that big sticky mess, the cotton ball of candy they call a party but is really nothing more than a collective of tax-hating, Constitution- and Gun-loving reactionaries.
If government is no longer on the people's side, principles which the Tea Party purport to represent do represent a welcome change. For example, if our fiscal imbalances are leading to the destruction of our nation, then the TP principle to cut spending is undeniably vital. Yet how could that be accomplished?
On spending, at some point there needs to be a hard either/or choice between military priorities and domestic ones. Faced with a nasty recession, tax revenues will be quite limited. Of course we all hope TPers can impose some fiscal restraint, but I don't see how they can be re-elected as Tea Partiers--and the party retain any credibility--unless its candidates in office vote no to military spending, which must challenge the cherished faith in the US military held so religiously by most Right wingers.
Calling the kettle black
The Tea Party can't change the Establishment from within as it is likely to be corrupted by it.
All politicians have a tendency to end up being compromised in Washington. Washington, D.C. has a myriad of delights from which to draw any number of scandals. Insert new politician, drunk with power, Tea Partier or not, into that environment and you'll make the humble proud and the pure unpure. It's the New Rome and all delight in her pleasures.
By succeeding, the Tea Party un-succeeds. By triumphing over Establishment candidates, they become the Establishment. In time, absolute power corrupts absolutely, whatever the candidate claimed as a candidate. As a matter of fact, the more audacious and anti-establishmentarian the message, the MORE likely and total the compromise, as the Obama case showed.
On one hand, the TP victories have brought new candidates, outsiders. They intend to bring change and oppose the Establishment. In a campaign, messaging takes precedence, though, and if the American people want to believe in hope and change, they deserve to be lied to, so recently as Barack Obama's "Vote for me and get change." The real message might go: "Vote for me on the promise of hope!" Translation: if I do all the things I say I'll do, there will be change. But first you must vote for me.
In the media spotlight, the presentation of a balanced image is critical, polish is a plus, and professionalism key. Tea Partiers seem lacking experience in these areas. They do have the benefit of being outsiders in a period of great anti-incumbency sentiments.
Campaigning is a brand statement. Political races are run no differently from corporate sponsorships or marketing campaigns. In age of constant media bombardment, consistency in messaging is vital, as brand marketers know. A big chunk of the message attempts to get viewers (voters) to identify with the candidate.
Barack Obama's campaign of 2008 heralded grand new visions of change and hope as their cornerstones. What we get at the end of the long campaign road may not be what is promised. Then again the product--the candidate--is only bought every four years. Voters may be more apt to forgive flaws and cracks in their purchase--little inconsistencies they may be able to overlook when next it comes to time to buy.
Nowhere did we see this more clearly than the devolution of Barack Obama the Campaigner to Barack Obama the President. In the first, we have someone we want to believe in, a source of hope. In the President Obama, we have a cold tactician willing to compromise anything, with anyone. Barack the Campaigner was likable, a celebrity, someone you could see yourself drawn to. Barack the President is "the decider," a Byzantine clositered emperor who negotiates with men of power to get things done, Chicago-style. Untouchable, distant, impersonal. Sanitized.
Unlike a free market where consumers are free to buy any number of products, we in the American political process are limited to a choice of two. Or possibly three, if you include the Tea Party, which is supposedly a choice within one of the two. "Cream or sugar?" the marketers might ask. "Sugar," the purchaser might answer. "Nutra-low or regular?" the server might inquire and we'd answer.
In the same way, the Tea Party presents itself as just another flavor within the existing political grid. It's not changing the system by itself, simply trying to alter the political dynamic to reflect an under-served constituency.
The tactic of trying to dumb-down one's image and impressions to connect to Whites isn't the same as the general population. For one, the states with large Latino voters--key to winning for the GOP--might not like Tea Party support for Arizona's anti-illegal immigration law, which they saw as racist.
The only guarantee in a system like ours is that talk is cheap. I don't know if perception is reality, no matter how many times the impression of a candidate is made in our message-weary minds. And the two parties really aren't all that different. Sure one comes in and another out, but the more things change, the more they stay the same, as the French say.
Impacts going forward
Tea Party candidate numbers will be insufficient to accomplish change yet they could be a catalyzer--enough to redirect policy changes. Congress--the only avenue open to Tea Partiers at the present--requires building constituencies through compromise in order to pass meaningful legislation.
The Tea Party aims to do great things but won't constitute anywhere near a majority for several more election cycles. The intervening period offers plenty of opportunities to fall from their principles. Also, sustaining a political organization requires iron-like discipline, a gang of Karl Roves who relentlessly attack the talk shows, radio, the Web, on a nightly basis, then get up at first light to fax out talking points to party activists, media figures, and sympathizers. It's precisely because maintaining a consistent political message requires organization that organizational hierarchies, authority, and control overshadow whatever individual positions candidates hold.
And I guess the first goal of every Tea Partier elected will be, you guessed it, re-election. Once made insiders, how can they preserve their outsider status--linchpin of their popularity--two or six years from now (the time span until the next election for Federal office)?
While an overabundance of popularity may get candidates elected, it's infinitely harder to keep voter interest over periods which may span several years. It's easy to get and stay excited about a candidate when an election's just a few months away; far harder it is for the public to like them--or much less care--months into office, especially if things aren't going too well for them.
Primaries wins by TPers have limited choices to Tea Party versus Democrat in the General Election (GE). Demographics for the GE are really quite different from primaries in most states. Whereas single issue voters can shape primary wins, the GE is more about where candidates stand on a broad number of issues.
This presents a new dynamic to manage and a cadre of highly trained professionals to sell a different message. It won't be enough to overpower Establishment candidates within the GOP. Cowboy boots and country roots may not be enough to win. And on this issue race could greatly smear the Tea Party as its extremist elements advocate greater freedom for the States in their fight against illegal immigration.
The American population has been racially diversifying for years now, to the point Hispanics, African Americans, and Asian--largely a group that votes Democratic--now combine to more than 40% of our population. This demographic change sets a largely non-White audience against some messages which were designed to woo GOP voters.
Any candidate seeks to identify with the broadest possible audience. To avoid alienating as many people as possible, Establishment candidates need to be careful not to denigrate the TPers for whatever principles they have. Nor should their opposition--which appears at present to be solely Democrats.
Some have said that the placement of Tea Party candidates within the GOP could help the sole plausible alternative in virtually every district: the Democrats. Yet it's hard to believe Democrats have much credibility left when it comes to the bringing change mythology, so I don't think TP success means the GOP suffers. It's also possible that the GOP can latch on to some constituencies their previous eight years in power alienated: the anti-Bush, the anti-interventionist crowd who hate the GOP establishment passionately.
Some GOPers defeated in the primary will run as independents. A three-way race could get quite interesting. A third party candidate won't likely be viable in a three-way Presidential race, especially if the support for the Tea Party candidate comes mostly from within the likely pool of GOP voters anyway. Still, the Tea Party's Open Tent might be a draw for people who don't typically vote. Barack Obama was able to bring many of these people into his camp in 2008, especially first-time voters.
How many more disaffected persons are lingering out in the fringes we can't know. I just can't expect their numbers to be so high as to radically change the election results, which means TPers will need independents to go Republican, which after Bush and the unpopular wars he started isn't likely to happen but could, as more Americans now consider themselves independent than either Democratic or Republican. A vote for the TP candidate could be considered a protest vote, which considering how poorly we're being led, may be inherently a good thing yet yield to disastrous results. Still I admit I'd get a good dose of schadenfreude seeing the Demos get beat up. It's just the notion of what could come after that scares me.
For real change, the Tea Party really needs to be independent of the two parties, I believe. To try and assume their party can exist within the GOP is stretching the fundamental purpose of creating a Tea Party, which must be to bring real change. Now infiltrating the GOP might be easier than going the independent route yet there is a threat that GOP moderates could turn away, scared by TP rhetoric and populism.
Maybe if the GOP splits up, the Democrats could, too. We could use a progressive party. The Establishment Democrats aren't getting it done and their leader, Barack the President, has abandoned a progressive agenda in favor of more war, corporate favoritism, and relentless spending.