The TEA (Taxed Enough Already) Party movement over the past year has developed into a major force in American politics. So much so it lifted a little known state senator in Massachusetts into the U.S. Senate seat once held by Ted Kennedy, and last month held a national convention that attracted Sarah Palin and other big names as speakers.
But where does the TEA Party movement go to from here?
TEA activists, in Pennsylvania and nationwide, will undoubtedly have a significant impact in a number of statewide, congressional and even legislative races. There will also likely be an inflow of TEA activists into the official Republican Party structure as seats on both the state and county committees are up for election this year.
How closely though should the TEA Party movement bind itself to the Republican Party? When it adheres to its principles, which it sometimes does not, the Republican Party is clearly more ideologically in step with the TEA activists that the Democrats. In fact, is the Leftist Democratic agenda pushing for nationalized health care, Cap and Trade, excessive spending and massive deficits which have awakened and energized TEA partiers causing them to become involved or more involved in the political process.
Despite that, there is good reason for the TEA Party movement to not allow itself to be co-opted into the establishment Republican Party. It would be far better for the movement to exist as an independent political force, making common cause with the GOP when interests coincide.
The debate is running both ways. Establishment Republican leaders are divided over how to deal with the TEA Party movement. Some are politically savvy enough to understand many of the TEA partiers are part of the conservative base of the GOP that became disaffected with the party's straying from its principles over the past decade.
Other Republican officials are scared of the TEA Party types. One Republican county chairman recently called a congressional candidate to berate him for speaking at a TEA Party rally. State Republican Chairman Rob Gleason was the master of ceremonies at a TEA Party candidates' night, and then branded as rebels anybody who opposed the party's endorsed candidates — all in the same week.
There is no doubt that when the TEA Party movement and the Republican Party are united they are unbeatable. But, that unity should only exist around candidates who deserve it. TEA partiers should remain free to boycott those Republican candidates who don't reflect their ideals — or even to support conservative Democrats who do.
If the TEA Party movement is co-opted into the mainstream Republican Party its influence will wain. The movement is powerful precisely because it cannot be counted on: it must be courted, and candidates must prove they deserve its support. If the TEA Party activists are assimilated into the establishment GOP they will simply be taken for granted much in the same way the conservative Republican base has been in recent years.
This is not a broadside at the Republican Party. It simply is the natural order of things. In the Democratic Party, for example, the African-American vote is taken for granted because party leaders know 90% or more will vote for the Democratic candidate in any given election. Thus, elected Democrats tend not to be overly responsive to the needs of that community.
The same fate will befall the TEA Party movement if it allows itself to be incorporated into the Republican Party. For now, at least, the TEA Party is best developing as an independent movement, and the GOP would be wise to court its support. That will allow the TEA Party movement to keep alive its activist fervor, while making the Republican Party toe the ideological line.
It is best if the Republican Party is forced to earn the support of the TEA Party activists. Or perhaps, as happened in Massachusetts, the TEA Party movement can earn the support of the mainstream Republican Party. After all, the GOP had written off Scott Brown and it was the TEA Party movement that put him in a position to win. Only then did the Republican machinery kick into gear and help to put him over the top. The bottom line there is that Republicans and TEA Party activists worked together — and won.
The formula for success has been discovered, and there is no reason to fix what isn't broken.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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