Lap Two for the Tea Party

Politics is a relay race, not a sprint, which means that those of us who belong to the Tea Party or support its goals must start thinking about the kind of candidates we'll run in 2012.

In this year's elections -- Lap One, so to speak -- the Tea Party demonstrated what so many of us have always known but couldn't prove: namely, that this is a center-right country. The Tea Party did this by keeping the Republican Party from blowing an historic opportunity (no mean feat, alas) and then by pulling in virtually every "small-c" conservative voter. With so many Democrats and other liberals too disheartened to cast their ballots, this was enough to push a lot of Republican candidates over the top.

This won't be enough to win Lap Two. By 2012, the president and his White House team will have recovered from their 2010 election debacle. So, too, will the Democrats in Congress and in the fifty state legislatures. Moreover, because politics is a tough business and because no one is perfect, in the coming two years, the new GOP leadership in the House of Representatives will make its share of mistakes. So will some of the newly elected GOP governors. And human nature being what it is, it's a fair bet that at least one of today's Tea Party heroes or heroines will self-destruct in some ghastly financial or sexual scandal.

To win in 2012, we will need to do two things: First, once again, we will need to keep the GOP establishment from screwing up while pulling in every "small-c" conservative voter. And then we will have to do something we really didn't do this last time around: We will need to get a fair number of Americans who plan to vote Democratic to switch their votes.

This is going to be harder than it sounds for a reason I am loath to articulate for fear of offending people I like, admire, and support: Simply put, there is a broken strand of DNA in the Republican genetic code. What's missing is the gene that gives us the ability to convince people who don't agree with us to change their minds. So we argue rather than explain; we assert rather than persuade.

The Problem with Palin

Sarah Palin is a prime example. Now, I happen to think she's terrific. I agree with virtually everything she says, I trust her completely to never sell out, and if she's on the ballot in 2012, I will send a check to her campaign and cheerfully stay awake all night licking envelopes. But in the two years since Governor Palin walked onto the national stage, she has failed utterly to get anyone who didn't already agree with her to change his or her mind. She repeats her positions over and over again, which is crucial for securing and rousing the base -- but insufficient for pulling in the independent voters, whose support in 2012 will be vital.

George W. Bush provides another example of the GOP's broken strand of DNA. Granted, he wasn't nearly as conservative as you or I would have liked. Still -- as so many Americans who despised him are now discovering as Mr. Bush rides the interview circuit for his new book -- he's an honorable, decent, intelligent, and engaging man.

But in eight years, he never convinced anyone who didn't already support his policies, particularly the War on Terror, to change his or her mind. Indeed, whenever some reporter or interlocutor pressed the president to explain why his policy toward Iraq or Afghanistan was correct, the president merely repeated his lines. Even worse, he appeared to be visibly annoyed by the persistent querying and frustrated by the inability of whomever he was speaking with to "get it." His secretary of state was every bit as awful. Just like the president she served so faithfully, Condoleezza Rice is smart and honorable; she's also stylish and literate. But listening to her talk about our foreign policy, or respond to nasty questions on those Sunday morning talk shows, was excruciating. She argued with her critics and invariably asserted that everything was going well even when it obviously wasn't. Never once did she explain why the administration's policies were right and, by doing so, actually persuade anyone to think differently about them or at least give them a second thought.

Ronald Reagan is the great exception.  Either his GOP genetic code had mutated, or he found a way to overcome that broken strand of DNA. For those among you too young to remember, when Reagan first walked onto the national political stage, he was dismissed by the self-proclaimed experts in the media -- and in the Republican establishment -- as a Hollywood has-been and an amiable idiot. But every time Reagan opened his mouth, he said something new, or something old but in an interesting way, and it quickly became obvious even to hostile members of his audiences that he was much, much more than his caricature. Just read Paul Kengor's biography of Reagan, Crusader, for an account of Reagan's 1967 televised debate about Vietnam with Robert F. Kennedy; 15 million Americans watched the so-called amiable idiot wipe up the floor with a stunned, tongue-tied RFK.

Keep 'Em Laughing

Of course, Reagan's movie-star looks and his sense of humor didn't hurt when it came to winning over, or at least disarming, his critics. Once, when some highfalutin European pooh-bah sniffed that he didn't understand how anyone who'd been an actor could become president, Reagan replied, cheerfully, that he didn't understand how anyone who hadn't been an actor could become president. The lesson for potential Tea Party candidates: Even in politics, it's hard to stay mad when you're laughing.

To win in 2012, we'll need to cross over into enemy territory and, so to speak, engage in hand-to-hand (or perhaps brain-to-brain) intellectual combat with Americans who don't already agree with us. We'll have to arm ourselves with hard facts about the issues -- lots of them -- and we'll need to weave these facts into a narrative so clear and convincing that it will overcome whatever political differences may lie between us and those Americans whose votes we'll need. In other words, we'll need to stop arguing and start explaining; we'll need to stop asserting and start persuading.

For example, it won't be enough merely to oppose raising tax rates on high-income families and businesses. We'll have to outline what will actually happen if we do that: Namely, that there will be a sharp drop in the number of new start-up companies, which are the businesses that create so many new jobs for all the rest of us. It won't be enough merely to oppose a government-run health care system because that's the sort of system left-wing pinko commies always want. We'll have to demonstrate how, and why, the complicated free-market system we've had up to now actually provides better health care for more Americans. (And we'll have to educate voters about the difference between having health insurance and having access to health care; they aren't the same thing.) And we'll have to start talking seriously about Islam -- more seriously than the boilerplate baloney we got during the Bush years and that we're getting now from President Obama -- and explain why the tenets of this religion are incompatible with the modern world and thus a mortal threat to our survival.

And while we're at it, instead of just asserting that the United States is history's greatest country, let's explain why we've earned this accolade. For instance, let's have our candidates fly over to Europe, stand in front of one or another U.S. Armed Forces cemetery, and explain just how we rescued humanity in World Wars I and II, and then in the Cold War. And let's point out to young voters, who've been taught in school that the U.S. is nothing more than the world's biggest polluter, that not one of our great athletes or entertainers has ever been so blindingly stupid to hijack a plane, fly it to Havana, Moscow, or Beijing, and ask for asylum there.

Star Power Helps

Doing this will require the kind of intellectual firepower that in Lap One we didn't seek out among candidates because we didn't really need it. Securing the base was all that mattered. This won't work in 2012. And if we can match intellectual firepower with star power -- so much the better. I'm not suggesting that in 2012, intellect will matter more than character; it won't and never should. I'm suggesting that in Lap Two, we'll need candidates of high personal integrity and the intellectual ability to explain and persuade.

Candidates like these are out there, in every state and at every level of government. There are several of them among those who the talking heads tell us will soon announce their candidacies for president; there are one or two who probably won't announce, but should. It's been a long time since the GOP drafted its presidential nominee, but if we can find the right candidate, perhaps we can talk him, or her, into giving it a shot. (One possible line of argument for use with one possible draftee: Running for president is a miserable experience, but it's marginally better than, say, living in Trenton.)

I said earlier that convincing voters to change their minds will be hard because doing this goes against our nature. A second, more obvious reason is that there is a huge number of voters who won't support us no matter what we say or do, or however well we say or do it. But let's not allow the GOP establishment to talk us out of trying. 

What the Tea Party and its supporters accomplished this year is something most of the so-called experts had believed was impossible. Perhaps they forgot that we're Americans, and we do the impossible all the time. Besides, after another two years of that pompous, preening empty suit in the White House, voters may be more willing than they've ever been to listen -- to put intellect above emotion -- and to absorb facts and logic. By 2012, we may be barging through an open door.

Herbert E. Meyer served during the Reagan Administration as Special Assistant to the Director or Central Intelligence and Vice Chairman of the CIA's National Intelligence Council. He is the author of How to Analyze Information and The Cure for Poverty.