The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, November 5, 2010

Strong or Weak Tea?

The Tea Party Produces a Strange Initial Brew

The Tea Party prides itself as a spontaneous, grassroots movement with no formal organization, infrastructure, or leadership. Tuesday’s midterm elections presented the first chance to see how this approach fares on a national scale. Its strength was evident but so were its weaknesses.

Tea Party candidates Marco Rubio and Rand Paul won
their Senate elections while Christine O'Donnell and
Sharon Angle were defeated
The movement’s raw numbers are legitimately impressive. One hundred and thirty-five candidates officially backed by the Tea Party won election, including five Senators. They scored wins in twenty-four states, demonstrating genuine nationwide viability. Places where they experienced highest success included Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Wisconsin.

However, Tea Party candidates suffered loses in thirty-two states. Some of their worst performances were predictable, in such liberal places as California, Massachusetts, and New York. However, they also did poorly in purplish states with hard economic times. They won only one race and lost three in Pennsylvania, while Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio proved toss-ups, with multiple wins and losses. Perhaps most surprisingly, they lost four races in Texas, a solid red state, to a single victory.

Even where conservative voter turnout was strong, establishment GOP Senate candidates consistently fared better and won by larger margins than their Tea Party compatriots. For all their “authenticity,” angry, impulsive candidates did not necessarily inspire voter confidence, even in the year of the angry voter. Yet in Senate races, the Tea Party achieved an impressive fifty percent winning percentage, albeit for a much smaller set of races, than the thirty-one percent victory margin they realized in House races.

The Tea Party must realize two important mitigating factors about the ability of its winning candidates to influence Washington as well as its own ability to achieve success in future elections.

First, the relatively large number of Tea Party wins was due to the sheer volume of candidates it backed. Moreover, many Republican politicians were eager for a Tea Party endorsement to demonstrate their anti-big government credentials. However, conservative voters celebrating victories may come to realize they have replaced much-maligned RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) with TINOs.

For example, I live in Ohio’s 1st Congressional District. On Tuesday, Republican challenger Steve Chabot, who was officially backed by the Hamilton County Tea Party, unseated one-term Democratic incumbent Steve Driehaus. However, the Hamilton County Republican Party also backed Chabot. In fact, he was the seven-term Representative beaten by Driehaus in 2008. He is unquestionably conservative but hardly a Beltway outsider, serving throughout the former Bush Administration and faithfully supporting all of its spending initiatives.

Second, one reason for the Tea Party’s success in this particular election may have had much to do with the demographics of those voting this year. Compared to 2008, voters in 2010 consisted of more whites and fewer African Americans and Hispanics. Likewise, it consisted of significantly more voters aged sixty-five and older and significantly fewer under the age of thirty. I could not find percentages related to income. Otherwise, however, these demographics align neatly with how Tea Party membership differs from the U.S. population in general.

I do not wish to detract from the Tea Party’s accomplishments in these midterms, which frankly were impressive for its first foray on a national scale. Unlike unsuccessful Third Parties of the recent past, which tended to place their initial emphasis on a single Presidential candidate, the Tea Party has established a legitimate power base at the Congressional level from which it can build. However, it does suffer from limitations that seem structurally inherent rather than ancillary.

The Tea Party’s disdain for career politicians has already cost it several key elections – experience and competence do not necessarily equate with corruption. What is more, even its most novice winners are going to have to learn how to cooperate and compromise in Washington. The assumption that everyone else in government is going to obey and get out of the way for fear of “suffering the wrath of the People” is simply na├»ve in its underestimation of Beltway cynicism and hypocrisy.

In much the same way, Tea Party disdain for formal leadership only serves to curb its effectiveness. The spontaneous leaders that have emerged so far have been little more than provocateurs at best, sometimes doing more harm than good.

Finally, the Tea Party’s freewheeling spirit, born of frustration with government, may be genuine and even admirable but is nonetheless unsustainable. If its elected candidates do not become effective change agents in Washington, despondency will set in, much as it did for many Democratic supporters this year. Alternatively, success by its candidates will diffuse anger among Tea Party voters (you cannot be angry and happy at the same time) and the push for change will diminish with it.

This tempest in a teapot proved it could help bring about political tsunami in this country. However, the tea it has produced so far has proven a strange brew, with a strong initial flavor but weak aftertaste as one sips it.

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