Tea Party Phoenix: Return of Grass Roots
Republicans were "community organized" in 2012. Obama and the Democrats achieved the same turnout advantage they enjoyed in 2008, without any noticeable signs of it building. Obama's rallies were smaller and there were almost none of the organic neighborhood "events" that signaled his growing groundswell of support in his first election. Obama, it seems, no longer needs those public events to get the turnout he needs. His campaign had institutionalized its turnout. Conservatives must do the same.
The tea party rose in 2009 in reaction to bailouts and the stimulus. It strengthened in opposition to ObamaCare. It was an organic, neighbor-to-neighbor movement that, on its own, delivered the House to the GOP and swept Republicans into state and local office across the country. Feeling that the damage Obama and the Democrats could do to the country had been effectively checked, many activists then went back to their regular lives.
Now, I never liked the term "tea party." It wasn't some new third party "thing." It was simply a rallying point for millions of Americans who suddenly became aware of how bad government policy could effect the economy and their way of life. It was an historic opportunity for conservatives to cement the nation's center-right viewpoint. It had the potential to enable the Republicans to do their own "community organizing" of the 2012 election, but it was mostly wasted.
It was always going to be the case that the Democrats and the media would oppose the "tea party," as it threatened them imposing their views on the country. But, in the last two years, it was also opposed by large segments of the establishment GOP, who were annoyed they were being held to account for their stated views in support of limited government. They sought to marginalize these newly active conservatives and even, at times, abetted the media's vilification of them.
At the same time, some national tea party organizations morphed into something more closely resembling traditional GOP organizations. They raised millions of dollars and spent it largely the way Republicans do -- on expensive TV ad buys. Without the constant nourishment necessary, the grass roots withered.
This was exacerbated because 2012 was about candidates, not issues. It is a feature of presidential politics. It was made worse, however, because the GOP made a strategic decision to mute its criticism of Obama and downplay its conservative principles. It appealed to a mythical "center," while the Democrats ginned up their leftist voting base. As a result, a lot of potential conservative voters stayed home. That Romney won roughly the same number of votes as McCain is testament to this.
There is, however, a way forward for conservatives. Obama and the Democrats have arrogantly made gun control an issue again. This has the potential to galvanize millions of conservatives on a core principle. Also, in the next two years, key provisions of ObamaCare come into effect. Few Americans have felt the effects of ObamaCare yet. That will change over the next 18 months. When they do, conservatives will have another opportunity to institutionalize the nation's center-right views.
That said, to win in 2014 and beyond, conservatives will have to return to the grass roots activism that delivered them in 2010. Not necessarily rallies, but the one-on-one, neighbor-to-neighbor organizing that was a hallmark of that midterm election.
Conservatives can no longer trust that the Republican party will do this. Some tea party organizations have been building a new infrastructure, based on direct voter contacts. That needs to be expanded exponentially over the next two years. Obama won based on technology. The campaign almost knew every supporter by name, as well as which issues motivated them. Conservatives can do the same.
In his arrogance, Obama begins his second term pursuing policies that can give rise to a renewed conservative grass roots movement. In 2009, even long-time conservative activists were caught off guard by the rise of the tea party. Efforts to effectively channel it were made difficult because it arose so spontaneously. This time, we have advanced warning it is coming. Conservatives better be prepared.
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