Ten Lessons For The Tea Party

Advice From a Friend

By K. Paul Dueck

The Tea Party movement that arose towards the end of last year has many observers in modern political life. Indeed, it is scarcely possible to open any magazine or newspaper without encountering some brave worthy ready to tell you who the Tea Party is (either dangerous radicals or noble patriots) what motivates them (mostly racism or the values of the American founding) and what effect they will have politically on the 2010 elections – a huge one. But in spite of all those who watch it or rush to ally themselves with it, the Tea Party has few friends. Yet one of the things the Tea Party needs is friendship: it needs friends who will value it for what it is while pointing it towards its better self.

So we arrive at this list, a set of 10 general lessons for the Tea Party from a friend who wants the movement to succeed without losing itself in the process.

1. Small Accomplishments are still Accomplishments

Whatever majorities the Republican Party may build in November (with the still smaller coalition of Tea Party Republicans), they will lack sufficient power in Washington to really change the direction of the nation. Especially with President Obama about to go into full campaign mode and the Republican presidential hopefuls set to gear up in January, the prospect of accomplishing really major change – like repealing ObamaCare – is going to be small. That's okay, though. In fact, as long as the Tea Party is willing to internalize that fact, a Congress that takes seriously the business of administering government, over and above their symbolic actions, might well be the best possible thing for maintaining the strength of the Tea Party. Making government work better, by exposing those parts that can't work at all, reducing discretionary spending, and investigating how the mammoth federal bureaucracies actually run are things that lie within the power of Congress, and are all places where the Tea Party can make a difference.

2. Politics is the Art of the Possible

I would be the first to hail a return to fiscal sanity, reducing federal spending to 2003 levels (adjusted for inflation), say, or placing entitlements programs upon some other foundation the a pyramid scheme. However, despite the strength of the Tea Party and the general revolt against the policies of President Obama, no really big policy changes look possible between now and 2012. But that doesn't mean our response should be disengagement, or a quixotic government shut down. There are substantial policy goals that should be possible in the new Congress. For instance, removing the power to regulate greenhouse gases from the EPA has bipartisan support for instance.

Adopting this approach is also critical because when the nation has divided government the president has much greater ability then any other individual to drive the agenda. By not making unrealistic demands of the newly elected representatives, the Tea Party will give new members of Congress the opportunity to capitalize on the momentum of this election and actually accomplish many of the specific limited objectives that lie within their reach.

3. Politics is about Compromises.

Newly elected conservatives are going to have to make compromises not just compromises on policy, though if they plan to have Obama sign anything controversial they will have to make those too, but also the more typical deal making that happens in Congress. Want to change the way that the government subsidizes agriculture? Conservatives have to be ready to make deals (or at least vote for deals made by others), to protect the constituents of other members of Congress. Without endorsing special earmarks and the corruption they bring to our politics, Tea Partiers have to recognize that the business of government isn't pure. Sure, we can build a coalition for better tax policy because we can demonstrate that it actually is better, but one of the quirks of a representative democracy is that we're only going to enact that better tax policy when we see that it is okay to institute a phase in plan for the largest employer in Congressmen Such and Such's district. Now, there are good deals and bad ones, and good legislating has a lot to do with making wise deals, but the Tea Party won't accomplish any of its goals if not making any such deals becomes a litmus test.

4. You Can't let your Reach Exceed your Grasp

Of the ghosts of political movements past, one that should give the Tea Party pause is the movement that coalesced around President Obama in 2008. That coalition, especially the new voters who made it different from past electorates, disappeared in the last two years. One of the primary reasons is that the President used his 53% coalition to force through a massive restructuring of the American health care system. In the end, the disappearance of the 2008 majority shows the danger of trying to implement major policy changes upon electoral victories based in sentiment. When all you have, as an electoral coalition, is national agreement that what we are doing now doesn't work it is important to remember that you don't have an agreement that your policies are the solution. What a majority based on sentiment, the likely result of the 2010 midterms, gives you is the opportunity to build support for your policies (running test programs, implementing all of your 'easy sell' policies, and generally showing you aren't crazy).

Even if Tea Party candidates managed to attain electoral majorities large enough to accomplish everything they might wish to do, they shouldn't try to. Rather this Congress should be about laying groundwork, setting a foundation by demonstrating to the American people that conservative policies work. The guiding example should be the NRA, which rather then fighting for a temporary legislative majority sought a way to transform the attitude of the public. It was by changing the attitude of the public, that the NRA made gun rights more secure than any law ever could. The Tea Party and its candidates need to be prepared to fight a similarly long battle over fiscal policy, and not try to attain a quick legislative fix that will be washed away in 2012.

5. Stay on Target

Shifting from the lessons for elected officials, to the lessons for individual Tea Partiers, we can see that one of the key dangers to the Tea Party in the next two years will be the coming presidential campaign. As the media cycle picks up and the distractions inevitably begin to spill out of Iowa and New Hampshire, maintaining focus on holding Washington accountable isn't going to remain a spontaneous process. After the Republican gain seats in Congress, there will likely not be another TARP or health care debacle for people to respond to. For the Tea Party to continue to matter, current Tea Party members must maintain their focus on the legislative process. Whether that means identifying bad bills and calling on Congress to defeat them, or supporting conservative policies like DC's school choice program and Paul Ryan's budget plan, Tea Partiers need to remain focused on the issues that motivated them in the first place.

6. Keep Learning

One of the interesting things about the Tea Party has been the extent to which it has been an educating movement. Not only have hundreds of thousands of people rallied around the nation to fight spending, but they have also taken it upon themselves to read the Constitution, study history, and learn about their civic duties and heritage. This explosion of popular political education is one of the best things to come out of the Tea Party, and the one most likely to make a difference in the years to come. The Tea Party should continue to emphasize learning about America and about government in the years to come, particularly as it concerns economic policy. Milton Friedman's Free to Choose is a great example of a book that is easy to read in segments, in a break from your real job, which demonstrates what sound economic policy looks like with specific case studies. One of the most inspiring aspects of the Tea Party is the substance it gives to the hope of a conservative mass politics more sophisticated then attack ads, but that dream relies on continuing the process of civic education that has been so much apart of the movement's ethos to date.

7. Stay Energized

One of the most important reasons political movements fail is that they end up losing the fuel that drove them in the first place. When a group's motivating concern vanishes, so to do the motivated people who made the group exist in the first place, even if the problems that they grouped together to solve were never addressed. The movement against the Vietnam war is a really good example of this. While the anti-war movement purported to be against all sorts of problems in the world, like racism and imperialism, in practice the protesters showed up to protest because of the draft and the American casualties taking place in Vietnam. When the draft ended and American forces left South-East Asia, the anti-war movement that had so shaken the country disappeared – even though American grand strategy concerning communism and the Third World had not changed. More specifically, while American military and foreign policy did not pass through the fires of the Vietnam protests unchanged, the protesters disappeared before they were able to bring about any of the fundamental changes that they had demanded.

For the Tea Party is to avoid that fate, it must transform itself from a movement that derives its energy from dissatisfaction with the bad economic climate, to one that is driven by a sense of the injustice of the Government using public money to pick winners and losers in the economy. Since the economy will almost certainly continue to grow at least somewhat in the near term, whatever anger aided the Tea Party in the past year will begin to dissipate. For the Tea Party to have more then a transient influence, then, will require that its members become committed more to changing the structure of American government then expressing their disagreements with the current policy tide.

8. Know the Value of a Party

If the Tea Party is to change the structure of American government, then it must do more then just capture the Congress in 2010. Rather, like the New Deal coalition that emerged around FDR, it must find an enduring recipe for political success. Part of that success will inevitably depend on its interaction with the Republican Party. Though many Tea Partiers identify with the GOP, 63% according to a CATO survey, traditional Republicans (and traditional Republican issues) form only a part of the Tea Part ethos. Becoming part of the Republican Party, perhaps the force driving its future coalitions, will aid the Tea Party in accomplishing its goals in two ways. First, as an institution with roots that reach back to the Civil War, the GOP has a tremendous amount of expertise to share with Tea Partiers which will help them win elections and also accomplish things once they win. Attempting to generate an entirely parallel structure would not only be a ridiculous waste of energy, but would also ensure that the Tea Party never achieved the electoral victories that are the point of any American political movement. The second way in which the Republican Party is crucial to Tea Party success is rhetorical. It places the Tea Party in its proper place as a natural part of America's longstanding conservative tradition, one that is neither crazy nor radical, but is essentially a reaffirmation of America's basic political values. For almost the entire history of our Republic, not being crazy has been one of the fundamental tests for office, a test that the Tea Party can pass by rejecting (by means of primaries) some of its wilder voices and by winning the support of the wider circle of conservatives. If the Tea Party is to be remembered as a constructive element in our political history, it must also be remembered as a new flowering of conservatism not a mutant malignancy.

9. Recognize the Failures of a Party

Paradoxically, the association with the Republican Party will also hurt the Tea Party. The GOP, for all its many glories, isn't perfect. Its long history and broad reach have ensured that there are many episodes that Tea Partiers can point to as real failures. Further, there will be many dimensions of the Republican Party that will, on account of their long history and deep entrenchment, fight any attempt by the Tea Party to change the status quo. Moreover, the stronger the Tea Party becomes, the more the corrupting forces that act upon political parties will intensify. Because, in the end, a political party is a tool for gaining political power, the longer that power remains concentrated the more the forces that merely desire power will coalesce around it. The Tea Party can never become simply about electing the Republican Party's candidates, or ensuring that the Republican Party 'wins' each news cycle. Both reduce the Tea Party's driving vision of a smaller and more perfect union from its proper place as the conductor of our political action, to the servant of more self-interested goals. Balancing the danger of entrenched interests against the need for stability requires that the Tea Party walk a careful balance in its relationship with the GOP. To do so successfully will require that the Tea Party not lose its impendent character as it becomes part of the wider Republican coalition.

10. Move the Field, not the Line of Scrimmage.

What separates the enduring political coalitions from the ephemeral ones in American politics is that the enduring ones reshape the way the public thinks about policy to the extent that their ideas become the new normal. As the New Deal made Social Security an untouchable given or the Reagan Revolution banished forever the days of 70% marginal income taxes, so too can the Tea Party change the political landscape. The Tea Party can make great progress toward that end, even while Barack Obama remains president. While the truly important tasks probably depend on the outcome of the 2012 elections, and repealing Obamacare or putting entitlements on a sound footing probably demand a new president, there are plenty of things that a Tea Party congress can do in the short term. Two important initiatives might serve as examples. First, Congress can do much to ease the jobs of entrepreneurs and small to mid-size companies. Accounting and licensing burdens can be lightened, and the tax process simplified. Large corporations with dedicated lobbying teams work hard to ensure that the government aids them in establishing barriers to entry that end up hurting everyone. An aggressive Tea Party Congress can change that. Even greater changes might be accomplished at the state level. Second, Congress can help put people back to work by rewriting the Civil Rights Act to make it easier for businesses to test their applicants. Such a process might help to make the employment market a truer market, where employers can look for precisely their type of applicant and job seekers can more clearly understand what they need to do to find the job they want. Other ideas, like say an X Prize for energy technology, are all well within the reach of a Tea Party Congress. In the long term though, the Tea Party needs to develop policy proposals that help solve the needs of the American People (say for instance making job loss less terrifying) in the spirit of the principles that make the Tea Party what it is. Only once the ground has been prepared, legislating productively and well, energizing and educating the American people, building a strong party, and rallying all of them behind a new vision of how the government should work and relate to the people, can a real transformative victory be one.