Turn Out the Lights, the Tea Party’s Over?

August 12, 2010

POLITICO, an online publication for D.C. solipsists, claims that the tea party is in trouble.

Reporter Kenneth P. Vogel writes that some leaders worry “that their efforts to reshape American politics … are being undermined by a shortage of cash that’s partly the result of a deep ambivalence within the movement’s grass roots over the very idea of fundraising and partly attributable to an inability to win over the wealthy donors who fund the conservative establishment.”

The tea party has made several sound decisions. It declined to start its own political party, which would have speedily consigned it to irrelevancy. It’s kept its fire trained on fiscal issues, and not wandered into immigration, abortion, and which reproductive organs spouses must have in order for bureaucrats to validate marriages.

But as the money disagreement documented by POLITICO reveals, the tea party has made at least as many missteps as canny decisions.

A key early blunder was believing that its surprisingly well-attended rallies indicated broad public support. As we saw with the failed campaign to block Obamacare, opponents of healthcare “reform” didn’t have the numbers.

Why not? Reliable polls show that tea-party sympathizers are white -- really, really white. Nearly nine in ten, according to the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute and The New York Times. They’re also more male than female, and a “young” tea partier is around 45.

In July, Gallup found “significant overlap between Americans who identify as supporters of the Tea Party movement and those who identify as conservative Republicans.” The polling firm concluded that the phenomenon is “more a rebranding of core Republicanism than a new or distinct entity on the American political scene.”

That’s a discouraging assessment for tea-party leaders, but they need to hear it.

Tens of millions of oldish, married, white, employed/retired men in the U.S. have money -- and they vote. Enlisting them in your cause is always wise.

However, we don’t live in Pat Buchanan’s America anymore. Unless the tea party finds a way to connect with significant numbers of women, blacks, Latinos, Asians, and younger adults, it should grow accustomed to Obamacare-style defeats. Raising the visibility of spokespeople who don’t look like the plumber or accountant you’ve had for decades is essential. So is the need to put away the tri-corner hats, American flag ties, and Captain America bodysuits -- in the eyes of many, you look like a dork, not a patriot.

Tea-party leaders have also blundered by focusing almost all of their ire on Washington. State and local governments are fiscally unsound, and suffer from mission creep that rivals the federal government’s. And it’s far easier to have a big impact at city hall and in state capitols than it is to influence Congress.

Leftists don’t think globally and act locally on the environment alone. Issue after issue, they’re active -- and usually, dominant -- in statehouses and municipal-government buildings.

Try explaining that to tea partiers. They’ll probably be too busy booking buses for their next D.C. protest to listen. The closest many groups get to focusing on their home states is campaigning for U.S. Senate and House candidates. And in those races, the tea-party record is mixed. Exhibit A: The love affair with newly elected U.S. Senator Scott Brown, who as a Massachusetts state legislator voted for Romneycare and had an abysmal record on taxes. Rand Paul looks like a winner in Kentucky. But was Sharron Angle the best pick to challenge Harry Reid? Polls are looking better and better for Searchlight, Nevada’s nastiest resident.

POLITICO’s piece confirms that tea-party stumbles have not gone unnoticed by longtime funders of conservative causes. The deep pockets that contribute to right-leaning publications, think tanks, public-interest law firms, and advocacy groups understand political realities. They also grasp the need to fight leftism at every level of government. If the tea party demonstrated more sophisticated strategies and tactics, surely the money would flow.

With the midterm elections less than three months away, pundits will soon have a much more accurate picture of the health and influence of America’s newest grassroots movement.

Contrary to the claims of cultural elites, the tea party isn’t a bunch of racist, wife-beating, gun-clinging ignoramuses. It’s populated by law-abiding and educated -- if far too racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically homogenous -- citizens who are sick of arrogant pols putting vote-buying ahead of the prevention of national insolvency.

But without growing its ranks beyond the traditional Republican Party base and learning to play the sleazy-but-necessary game of politics better, the tea party’s over.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) is a writer, commentator and lecturer. He lives in Connecticut.

# # # # #