With popularity hovering at around 20% one wonders, what happened to the Tea Party? They stand for smaller government, lower taxes, greater freedom, so how could that be unpopular? Because, in the last four years, the Tea Party has made so many mistakes that if they ever recover as a movement, it will depend on how quickly they can fix them.
The first mistake should have been obvious but I’m constantly amazed how many TPs out there still make this one: Leadership. The TP coalesced around mind numbingly facile characters. These leaders were either, idiotic, insane, or both. And to be fair, the TP doesn’t really have “leadership” in a hierarchical sense, but they do have a raft of politicians that they tend to send money to, support, vote for, and agitate on behalf of. And any number of popular TP aligned individuals speaking on conservative friendly news networks. I’m talking about the litany of borderline crazy TP leaders like Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Ryan, Cruz, and those are the successful ones. You have the ones that crashed and burned like Christine “I’m not a witch” O’Donnell, Todd “legitimate rape” and “Biology fail” Akin. Not only did some of these people fail, they bumped experienced legislators that could have advanced a TP agenda assuming the TP had one. If the TP ever wants to be taken seriously as a movement, especially a nonpartisan one, disavow the crazies in the party. In a fight between two people, pick the noncrazy one. Even if that person doesn’t necessarily agree with your economic and political goals.
The second mistake is not having a political agenda. This both a strength and a weakness. It’s a strength because it allows them to broaden their appeal to everyone. Without specifics to disagree with, everyone, by default agrees with the TP. This means you have TPs going around genuinely confused. “How could anyone NOT be for freedom? That’s what we’re all about!” Well, because “freedom” is a rather nebulous concept. To my father, freedom means traveling down the freeway at 120 or faster in a car that can actually do that. For the record, I’m against it and he, thanks to rigorous traffic enforcement (and a governor on the car), is a generally safe driver.
Part of the problem is that TPs often have no idea what an actual agenda really is and so they spout party platitudes and political slogans such as Smaller Government, more jobs, lower taxes, less spending, and so on and whine about how no one is listening and blaming the media. This means, for all of the TP agitation, they get nothing done and have sabotaged their own efforts on multiple occasions. Consider Obamacare. They’ve spent a year and 40+ symbolic votes trying to kill it. The country needs to see a single vote on how TP would replace Obamacare in order to take the TP seriously. Pick a plan, put into legal language, pass it through committees, vet it through the media, and vote on it, but the Tea Party’s got nothing. Let’s look at a particular Tea Party sentiment. You want lower taxes? Great! Me too. Which taxes, for whom, and how much lower? Who will benefit and who will lose? What will this cost everyone and what programs are going to be cut to pay for it? What combination of spending and tax priorities are you willing to compromise in your negotiate with others in order to achieve anything substantive? When you have an answer to those questions, then you’ll have a party platform. And here’s the thing, the mainstream parties, they actually have that.
Mistake #3. This one is a result of not having an agenda. They’re picking all the wrong battles. For a populist movement that considers it’s priority to be largely economic issues, they’ve either focused on social issues, or have chosen the most anti-economic stances in the history of the country. They’re against any kind of immigration reform that doesn’t involve mass deportation. They shut down the government. They nearly caused a credit default once and threatened it twice. They’ve killed numerous budget negotiations. They launched a year long quixotic campaign against Obamacare without the political support to overturn it. And they’ve been vocally supporting social issues such as, anti-abortion laws, anti-gay laws, anti-science mandates, and so on.
Mistake 4. Being Whiny. The Tea Party blames the GOP, they blame the DEMs, they especially blame “The Liberal Lamestream Media”. You know what? Take responsibility for yourself. ‘The media’ really is picking on you, but only because you’re being stupid. The media will vilify anyone it sees as being weak. The solution is to get some professionalism, disavow crazy people, and run a clear coherent message. When a mainstream politician has a bad media day, they reassess their message and work at presenting their argument better. The Dems have the same problems as the TP when it comes to the media. Someone gives a bad interview, that becomes the news cycle for weeks. Bad news for the president, that’s the main story. Remember the Anthony Weiner thing? Of course you do, because the media wouldn’t let a relatively trivial incident go. Weiner couldn’t let go of the media not letting it go, and began to implode, which the media loved and created a catastrophic cycle that ended the career of a popular politician TWICE. Not only that but the biggest media outlets are conservative in nature. So go back and fix mistake number 2, get some professionals who can handle a hostile media environment, realize you have your own networks to spout whatever platform you like, and get over it.
One final note. Dear Libertarians. I know you Libs often get lumped in with the Tea Party when you often have a very different political philosophy and goals. I know you hate it. You guys are awesome. Some of you crazy, but generally in a good way. Keep standing up for your principles.