June 15, 2010
Some Advice for the Tea Party: Take Your Time and Learn from Your MistakesBy Larrey Anderson
The results of the primary elections (from the perspective of the Tea Party folks) have been mixed. While there have been a few upsets of incumbents, the good old boys and the GOP establishment's anointed have been doing fairly well[i].
That is to be expected. It is extraordinarily difficult to unseat an incumbent at the national level, and frankly, many of the Tea Party candidates have not been stellar political campaigners.
Again, this is not surprising. Many of the challengers are running for public office for the first time. Some do not know how to run competent campaigns, many are woefully underfunded, and few know how to pick apart an incumbent's voting record and get that information to the voters.
I will use the example of my own congressman, Mike Simpson, here in Idaho. (I have known Mike for years. Before he was elected to Congress, I served in the state legislature with him[ii]. Congressman Simpson has been in office for over a decade and has become the epitome of the good old boy network.)
Simpson had three primary challengers this year. All of them were lousy debaters and mediocre campaigners. They all had the same message of getting back to the Constitution -- but none of them had any reasonable, workable, and detailed proposals for how to get there. The incumbent creamed them in their debates. And although the final reports are not in, the incumbent outspent all of his challengers combined by about 300%. He easily won the primary on May 25.
Simpson's opponents had plenty of ammo to use against him, had they known where to look and how to use it:
1) The incumbent voted for the first TARP bill. Recall that the first vote on the bill in the House failed. After hearing the uproar from his constituents, my congressman knew that his vote might cost him his reelection -- so he voted "no" the second time around. This time, the bill passed. My congressman wore his second "no" vote like a red badge of courage. Still, before he voted "no" the second time, he left a trail of sound bites, and excuses, for his first "yea" vote. None of his opponents effectively used his silly alibis to their advantage.
2) The incumbent has "moved to the middle" over the course of his career. He tends to move back to the right when he faces a conservative opponent in the primary. None of his opponents stressed this obvious fact. For example, the left-wing National Center on Poverty Law rated my congressman (who calls himself a "commonsense conservative") at 60% (a "B") in 2007 -- prior to the eruption of the Tea Party movement. He dropped to 39% (still a high rating for a congressman from one of the most conservative congressional districts in America) in 2009 in anticipation of a tough primary. He didn't get one.
I could offer a dozen other instances of swings in of the votes of the congressman in my district. It is easy to find these voting records on the internet -- but few opposition candidates take the time to do it. And those who do their research have not yet learned how to get the information to the public.
Of course, my congressman has a near-perfect voting record for the NRA. But as I have shown elsewhere, most federally elected officials (whether conservative or liberal) in red states carefully guard, and proudly display, their NRA ratings. In the meantime, the National Journal's "Liberal on Social Policy" rating gives my congressman a hefty 35%. And he shows up at only 70% on the conservative rankings of the Heritage Alliance.
If his record is examined year by year (and whether or not he has primary opposition), the answer to the question "Is my congressman -- from the ultra-conservative second district in Idaho -- a true conservative?" is a patently obvious "Not so much." Or, I should probably say, "Only the year before he faces a primary election."
My congressman is not special in this dodge-and-weave voting pattern. He is typical. John McCain's discovery of a law enforcement emergency at the southern border in his home state of Arizona (during an election year) is a good example. McCain's television and radio ads on the sudden illegal immigration "crisis" are so stunningly hypocritical that they defy any rational justification. (Click on that last link. One of McCain's fellow AZ legislators openly laughed and ridiculed McCain's ads. The response seems appropriate.)
Until the Tea Party challengers become more savvy and better-informed, it is highly probable that career politicians like my congressman and John McCain will return to office. Anyone who thinks these types of politicians have seen the light and are focused on a smaller central government and a return to federalism and the Constitution -- than they are on doing whatever it takes to get reelected -- is drinking something a lot stronger than tea.
Here, then, is my advice for Tea Party members (and other conservatives) who are tired of politics as usual and want real change in Washington:
(A) Take your time. Tea Party affiliates, and most conservatives, know that we must stop the Democrat spending spree in D.C. before we can make any substantial inroads into taking back the GOP. It follows that we need to help the GOP take back the House and Senate as quickly as possible. We must get the House in the hands of the GOP and only then worry about removing the good-old-boy GOP incumbents. For this reason (and only this reason), I will be voting for my incumbent congressman.
These primary elections are good for winnowing out the weaker new candidates and getting Tea Party members running for public office for the first time a taste of the rough-and-tumble life of politics. There is a saying (and it is, for the most part, true): "You don't lose in politics until after you win." The statement means that the voters do not usually view people who unsuccessfully run for office the first time as politically unviable -- whereas an unseated incumbent is seen as a loser. This is not a lot of truth to pin our future political hopes on -- but it is something.
[B] The Tea Party must mature and learn from its mistakes. Having three challengers split the vote and willy-nilly campaign against each other, divide what little money was available, and shout constitutional platitudes at each other all but insured that the incumbent congressman in my district would be reelected.
To date, the only real accomplishment[iii] of the Tea Party has been scaring elected GOP incumbents (especially in the House) into pretending that they are conservatives. Pressure from the Tea Party will not be enough to keep the long-serving incumbents in line in the future. Most of them, like my congressman, must eventually be replaced.
This means that the Tea Party will have to carefully pick and choose its fights in the GOP primaries[iv]. It will have to become more organized. It will have to learn that the RNC is not, and has no intention of, changing its long-standing tradition of supporting GOP incumbents.
The fight is just beginning. It will take at least two more election cycles (after November) before we can really take back our country. Let's be smart about it.
Larrey Anderson is a writer, a philosopher, and submissions editor for American Thinker. He is the author of The Order of the Beloved, and the memoir Underground. His next book, The Idea of the Family, will examine the role of procreation in human self-awareness.
[i] Most of the Tea Party candidates who have been successful have been running in "open" GOP primaries. I.e., they are running in the primary elections to run in the general elections for a seat currently held by a Democrat.
[ii] Affinity is not reason enough for me to support a politician anymore. I am far more concerned about the state of my nation than I am about remaining congenial with my congressman.