Tea Party Failure? Not So Fast

When it comes to leaders in Washington, D.C. who really seem to "get it," who really seem to have their finger firmly on the pulse of the American mainstream, who demonstrate repeatedly an uncanny grasp of reality and an ability to dissect and address the issues that matter most to Americans, it's tough to name anyone who fits that mold worse than Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

After all, it was Reid who once took it upon himself to explain the rigors of our tax code by counseling how "[o]ur system of government is a voluntary tax system."  This, Reid noted, is why, "of course[,] you have to pay them." 

And it was Reid, the Pride of Nevada, who shortly before George W. Bush's surge strategy reversed the downward spiral in Iraq, gave his best version on Winston Churchill's famous admonition to "[n]ever, ever, ever give up" by advising, "This war is lost and the surge is not accomplishing anything." 

Not that Harry's powers of clairvoyance are limited to foreign policy.  The man who leads the Democrats in the United States Senate is on record proclaiming, "Social Security is a program that works and it's going to be fully funded for the next 40 years[.] ... No, it's not a crisis. This is something that's perpetuated by people who don't like government. Social Security's fine."  Fine, insolvent...it's all the same.

With such a record of precision and accuracy, then, it's understandable why the nation would be riveted to their TV sets as Reid appeared on Meet the Press to discuss the future of the Tea Party movement.  Remember that Reid and fellow Democratic visionary Nancy Pelosi were the first ones to so dismiss this "Astroturf" movement of Republicans as nothing real, lasting, or consequential -- a point that 67 of their now defeated ex-colleagues might dispute.

Nonetheless, in his trademark consistency, Reid first launched into a diatribe of how the Tea Party movement had, with ruthless precision, co-opted the Republican Party into an instrument of "obstructionism on steroids."  Lamenting the stranglehold on meaningful legislation these obstinate Tea Partiers had produced, Reid longed for his Republican colleagues to shed the far-right fringe that had muscled its way into power and return to "the art of working together, building consensus, [and] compromise."  Yet then, committing such an instantaneous flip-flop that even John Kerry would blush, Reid concluded that "I think the Tea Party's dying out."

This is the precise contradiction that is plaguing the left as they attempt to characterize the state of the Republican Party today, and more specifically the presidential primary.  Half of the time they want to condemn the strength of the conservative and libertarian resurgence, and the other half they dismiss it as irrelevant and ineffective given that the likely Republican nominee is said to be the "establishment" Mitt Romney.  I would suggest that both conclusions are inaccurate and reflect a fundamental misreading of the movement that has persisted since its inception.

But that fundamental misreading is not isolated to liberals alone.  Conservative writers like Michael Tanner assert that since Rick Santorum stands for almost everything the Tea Party opposes, his rise is a bad sign for the movement.  Business Week editorialized that "[i]f Newt Gingrich is the answer, the Tea Party has failed."  And the conservative website Red State concluded that if Rick Perry drops out of the primary, it will be the "ultimate failure of the tea party movement."

I would agree with those sentiments if the Tea Party movement were narrowly focused on winning a single electoral victory.  But it's not.  Now, there is no question that a great number of Tea Partiers wanted to see the "un-gaveling" of Nancy Pelosi in 2010 and want to see the defeat of Barack Obama in 2012.  But the movement itself has always been larger in scope and purpose than temporary or immediate electoral fixes.  In fact, that has been one of the common themes reflected in conservative circles over the course of the last few years: if this movement affects the outcome of only one election (think the 1994 conservative "revolution"), then it has failed. 

The Tea Party is about a generational shift in thinking.  It's about fundamentally altering the relationship between the citizen and the state.  It's about reshaping and reformulating discussions to begin and end with fidelity to the Constitution.  It's about reasserting the proper role of federalism, reining in the bureaucratic behemoth, and recapturing the essence of self-government. 

The truest sign, then, of whether the Tea Party movement is having success is not to gauge whom the Republicans nominate as much as it is to evaluate the ground upon which the debate for that nomination is being fought.  From that angle, there is reason for Tea Partiers to be encouraged.  Given that Mitt Romney wore the "Reagan Conservative" label in the 2008 race, and now is hammered as the "Massachusetts Moderate" in 2012, things are trending in the right direction...Harry Reid's genius notwithstanding.

Peter is a public high school government teacher and radio talk show host in central Indiana.  E-mail peter@peterheck.com, visit www.peterheck.com, or like him on Facebook.