The Tea Party

Wallace, Perot demonstrated anger's impact on political process

The national tea party movement, exemplified by the protest on the World's Fair site last week, is, according to its critics, an incoherent and illogical phenomenon invented and promoted by bloggers, Fox News, and talk radio hosts.

Well, yeah. Instapundit, talk radio, and Fox News enabled the meet-ups. You don't think The New York Times and MSNBC would help them get the message out do you? But you can't turn people out for a protest if there isn't a motivating energy and, yes, anger that drives it. Ask the environmental movement or any other issues-oriented interest group the last time they were able to organize a national protest with this kind of turnout.

The energy is real and significant and it ought not be ignored. There is very real anger across America and if political polling is to be believed it is not directed at President Obama. It is an anger directed at Washington in general, both political parties, and the prospect of a bankrupt federal government. The pictures I saw at the protests across the country had as many anti-Bush signs as anti-Obama signs.

The question for our political system is where this anger finds expression in the future and whether it re-invigorates the Republican Party or splinters it to pieces. Remember the populist anger harnessed by Alabama Gov. George Wallace—who rode it to national prominence with a third political party? We should also remember Ross Perot, who used the budget deficit to destroy a sitting president and elect Bill Clinton.

Will tea parties become the Tea Party?

The crack-up of the national Republican Party has been overstated and is partly wishful thinking on the part of liberal Democrats. But there is no question the coalition that Ronald Reagan crafted to make the party a national majority is in tatters.

There is an inherent tension between libertarians, fiscal conservatives, and the religious conservatives who want to legislate social issues. But the glue that held them together as Republicans was a lack of any place else to go. America has always had two predominate political parties, neither of which satisfies the political philosophies of all its members. You have to pick one.

Libertarians and fiscal conservatives, opposed to the expansion of the federal government, have found a home in the Republican Party, fearing Democratic spending and the growth of federal regulation and social programs. Religious conservatives, especially in the South, left the Democrats over social issues like abortion and gay rights.

It has always been a delicate balance holding these groups together. George Bush and Karl Rove used wedge social issues to win two national elections. But in doing so, they lost the fiscal conservatives and libertarians. Inertia kept them in the party for a while, but economic conservatives watched the profligate spending, the expansion of the federal government, and the threat to personal freedom and they are not happy.

Religious conservatives are also disenchanted with party politics. It's one thing to have the government funding faith-based initiatives when they are Bush Republican fundamentalist Christian faith-based initiatives. But what about Democratic faith-based initiatives? The problem is not Christians getting involved in politics. The problem is getting politics involved in religion. Political candidates standing in the pulpit on Sunday morning have begun to horrify devout Christians. There is a definite turn toward evangelism and saving souls and a corresponding disinterest in getting involved in secular politics.

The 50-state organization and entrenched bureaucracy of the national Republican Party still exists. Like the Democratic Party it is a framework and a vehicle. Barack Obama took over the Democratic Party and his vision remade it in his image. There may be an as-yet unidentified Republican who can come forward with a message that remakes the coalition, or creates another one from both traditional Democrat and Republican interest groups.

But the Republican Party emerged in 1856 and won the presidency in 1860, destroying the Whigs in the process. Republicans can embrace the dissidents and reinvigorate the party, or they can sit by and let someone else tap that energy for another purpose.