A fascinating discussion is now going on within Republican circles concerning the future of the tea party movement that is sure to accelerate after former presidential candidate and 74-year-old U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R.-Texas) won the straw poll of the 2935 votes cast by those who attended the annual conference of CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) in Washington, D.C., last week. It is noteworthy that of those voting, 48% were students and 54% of the participants were between the ages of 18 and 25. Still, Paul’s victory, according to CNN’s Peter Hamby, “…might be seen, in part, as a result of his support among anti-establishment Tea Party activists – who turned out in force at this year’s conference and expressed some frustration with the Republican Party.” The final results of the straw poll: Ron Paul-31%; Mitt Romney-22%, ending a three-year winning streak at CPAC; Sarah Palin (who did not attend)- 7%; Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty-6%; and Indiana Rep. Mike Pence at 5%. Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee tied at 4%, while Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour rounded out the field; with 5% voting “other” and 6% “undecided”.
Rep. Paul was described by CNN as “a stalwart foe of government spending” and by Jonathan Martin and Jessica Taylor of the POLITICO as “the libertarian-leaning Texas Republican who ran a quixotic bid for the presidential nomination in 2008….” Both stories on the CPAC election agreed that Paul was “unlikely to be a serious contender for his party’s nomination” or that the CPAC vote would have a “major impact on the 2012 presidential contest.” Still, a majority of those participating (53%) indicated that they were not entirely happy with the field of potential or likely candidates they had to choose from. Thus, discussion of the impact of the tea parties on the upcoming November Congressional elections and the 2012 presidential election will only intensify in the coming months.
Ironically, not one, but TWO thoughtful commentaries concerning the future of the tea parties were published just before the CPAC election – one by Ramesh Ponnuru and Kate O’Beirne of the NATIONAL REVIEW; and the other by Karl Rove in an article appearing in the WALL STREET JOURNAL. In their article (“The Coming Tea Party Elections”), Ramesh and Kate report the results of a poll commissioned by The National Review Institute, in which 6% of those questioned stated that they had “participated” in tea party rallies, and an additional 47% stated that they “generally agree with the reasons for the protests.” Although the subject of critical and condescending remarks by persons of prominence, such as Paul Krugman and David Brooks of the NEW YORK TIMES; and U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D.-Calif.), the NR poll revealed that the tea parties are (1)not driven by racial animus (large numbers approve of Obama’s performance and voted for him in 2008); and (2) are not generally unpopular (57% of the electorate view the tea parties as merely a group “of citizens concerned about the country’s economic future” while only 19% disagreed and considered the tea parties to be an “anti-government fringe organization” driven by “anger” or “concern”. Moreover, 53% of the electorate looks “sympathetically” on the tea parties.
According to NR, most tea party sympathizers and participants are pro-life and their “religious practices are roughly in line with those of the electorate.” Thus, social issues are not likely to cause a division between the tea parties and the Republicans. The same thing appears to be true on economic issues as well. While tea party participants and sympathizers are concerned about the deficit, most are not in favor of cutting the defense budget; and a majority (52 %) wants to “cut taxes to stimulate growth.” Only 7% want to increase taxes to reduce the deficit. Finally, although tea parties are opposed to bailouts of financial firms, a majority are against a new tax on banks that have benefitted from the recent bailout. Significantly, a majority are in favor of cutting taxes on corporations, presumably to make American corporations better able to compete in world markets.
Ramesh and Kate conclude that tea partiers will, as did religious conservatives before them, eventually become “valuable parts of the party’s infrastructure – if Republicans form a productive partnership with them. If Republicans can’t do that, they deserve to go out of business.”
Karl Rove, on the other hand, takes a somewhat different view in his Feb. 18, 2010 WSJ article (“Where the Tea Parties Should Go From Here”):
“The tea parties have made an important splash because they are not yet another auxiliary to the Democratic or Republican parties. Like the pro-life and Second Amendment movements before it, the tea party movement will have a bigger impact if it holds the feet of politicians in both parties to its fire. Each party must know it can win or lose swing tea party voters.”
Karl then voices concern that fringe groups or third party movements will try to “co-opt the tea parties’ good name, which is happening in Nevada…which will only serve to elect opponents of the tea party philosophy of low taxes and fiscal restraint. It could also discredit the tea party movement.” His advice to the tea parties: “keep their distance from any single party and instead influence both parties on debt, spending and an over-reaching federal government.”
These divergent views by respected conservative leaders are fascinating and revealing. After serving almost eight years as a Republican state party chairman and as a county chairman for almost eight years prior to that, I am convinced that a healthy and spirited two-party system is good for America and will prevail in this case if Republicans remain responsive to the views of the tea parties. I also see the logic of Karl’s view that the leadership of the tea parties should ideally remain separate from the Republican leadership, on the Biblical theory that one cannot serve two masters. Whether that is possible will probably be played out on a state-by-state basis. One thing is for sure: most tea partiers and rank and file Republicans are waiting for a new champion with the leadership qualities of Ronald Reagan, adjusted to deal with today’s problems. Hopefully, we will know this candidate when we see him or her, after the “vetting” process that all presidential candidates must go through. But we are looking and waiting.
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