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The End of the Tea Party?

Today, many of the incumbents and political elite who were mystified by the public uprising of the Tea Party are leaving office just as bewildered.  After nearly two years of rallies, activist, and electioneering the Tea Party Movement has done what many on the left and in the media thought impossible.  They united together on basic economic principles and sent a message through the ballot box that America’s debt and spending addiction cannot go on.  Scores of Tea Party favored candidates triumphed up and down the ballot.

These groups have every reason to celebrate.  They ignored the political establishment, they defied the “wisdom” of professional political pundits, and they showed how powerful a group largely consisting of political neophytes can be a force in swaying public opinion and achieving electoral success.

In a few days, though, after the confetti falls and weary activists get their first real night sleep in months, the euphoria will fade and the danger that has been lurking in the background will slowly start creeping towards the light.  Every movement will achieve ebbs and flows of interest and involvement, but this is not the danger I am speaking of.  It is a danger that could irrevocably fracture the Tea Party movement as we know it and bring it to an end long before it fulfills its potential.

That danger is the 2012 Presidential Election.

The Tea Party Movement and Presidential Politics

Having interacted with so many members of the Tea Party movement and their leadership, I know there are few fans of President Obama within their ranks.  While they praise the historic nature of his presidency and his commitment to his family, they believe that his ideology and the policies that flow from that ideology are contrary to what America needs when nearly 10% of Americans are out of work and our national debt soaring without an end in sight.  Because of the nature of his position, he easily becomes the most tantalizing target come 2012.

With the Presidential primaries set to begin roughly 14 months from now, the question will inevitably arise about who is the best candidate to run against President Obama.  Many prospective candidates have already been busy building shadow campaigns, building their financial war chests, and making appearances to gain supporters in early primary states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.  This is not to mention their building of political capital in this election cycle through fundraising and campaigning on behalf of candidates in tightly contested contests.

Until now, the Tea Party movement has been comprised of a loosely knit group of individuals holding a wide variety of political beliefs.  There are fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, independents, conservative Democrats, main street Republicans, conservative Republicans, libertarians, moderates, and many other self-identifications and combinations too numerous to list.  These philosophical and ideological differences have remained under the surface due to the common goal of rescuing our nation from the fiscal ruin.  Yet, the 2012 Presidential Election has the ability to bring these differences to the surface.

In 2008, many conservatives were unhappy with the selection of Senator John McCain to run against then Senator Obama in the general election.  Many in the establishment and some fiscal conservatives supported former Governor Mitt Romney.  Some social conservatives preferred former Governor Mike Huckabee, while libertarians fueled the candidacy of Representative Ron Paul.  Other social conservatives and some fiscal conservatives supported former Senator Fred Thompson while former Mayor Rudy Giuliani earned the support from many neoconservatives and socially liberal wing.

Due to the inability of fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, libertarians, and the establishment to agree on a candidate, Senator McCain was able to shrewdly build a campaign comprised of the more moderate and hawkish voters of the Republican Party.  In 2012, history has a strong chance of repeating itself if the Tea Party movement allows the Presidential Election to pit those with philosophical and ideological differences against one another.

How the Tea Party should Approach the 2012 Presidential Election

With recent history, and the assumed goal that the Tea Party movement wants to continue to be a force in American politics in mind, how should the Tea Party movement approach the 2012 Presidential Election?  Here are four guidelines.

First, acknowledge differences among members and be transparent. The Tea Party movement has been fond of promoting its diversity.  When it comes to 2012, the movement should not construe unity of purpose in 2010 as evidence that the movement is now homogenous in its belief.  If the movement is honest about the makeup of its membership, it will lead to less conflict and misunderstanding down the road.

Second, remain neutral in the primaries and re-evaluate in the general election. Didn’t you just say that not uniting early on a candidate in 2008 resulted in a less than preferred candidate?  I did.  Yet, in all likelihood, even if a local Tea Party or 9.12 group is able to mostly agree on a candidate, it does not mean that Tea Party and 9.12 groups across the country are going to agree.  It is more likely, however, that those in the local groups will not agree and, therefore, local groups risk divisiveness, mistrust, and even splits.

The power of the Tea Party movement was based on the power of local involvement.  Although the Presidential Election is important, it is only one of the thousands that will take place between now and November 2012.  Why risk the entire influence and prowess of the movement on one election?  Tea Party groups should re-evaluate their position with their membership after the primaries, however, they should keep the principle of local involvement in mind.  (As an aside, American Majority will be shortly announcing a new initiative to help local groups take their local involvement to the next level).

Third, remind members of the importance of local involvement, but allow them to choose their preferred Presidential candidate(s). It is naïve to think that the Tea Party movement will be able to prevent its adherents from getting involved in the Presidential Election, nor should they.  But the movement must continue to push the (accurate) narrative that the more local the election, the more it will apply to our everyday lives.  In addition, it must be remembered that nearly 50% of government spending occurs at the state and local level.  Local groups should allow some time for members to participate in the primary process, especially early and large primary states, but should also fully continue their local involvement.

Fourth, be a bridge-builder when the selection process is over. Even if local Tea Party groups remain neutral, there may still be some hard feelings among some members directed towards those whose candidate 1) survived the primary or 2) undermined another candidate’s chances in some way.  It is here where the Tea Party can be most useful in unifying its membership.  Local groups should not only remind potentially disaffected members of successes on a local, state and national level in 2010, but also that there are many upcoming races where they can make their presence felt.

Of course, it is always difficult to predict the future, but regardless of what happens in the next two years, the Tea Party movement can continue being a force in the political arena if avoids the pitfalls that the 2012 Presidential Election can bring by keeping these four principles in mind.