On Thursday, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza proclaimed that, in 2012, the tea party had the “worst year in Washington.” According to Cillizza, the tea party had a worse year than even Mitt Romney, whose loss to President Obama is the most surprising Republican defeat since Truman beat Dewey back in 1948. The bad news for Mr. Cillizza is that, while Mitt Romney has essentially vanished from the public scene, the Tea Party movement remains large, thriving, and thoroughly committed to restoring constitutionally limited government to the United States.
Cillizza’s gleefully misinformed obituary began with this bold declaration:
The Gadsden flag, which flew proudly over the 2010 midterm elections, now lies in tatters — rent by internal disagreements, losses among its most visible standard-bearers and a growing sense that the [T]ea [P]arty movement, which once looked like it could transform American politics, will soon be nothing more than a blip in the country’s collective memory.
Cillizza is just the latest in a long line of mainstream media pundits who’ve been declaring the tea party “dead” for the last three years. But like most Washington insiders, Cillizza shows only that he fundamentally misunderstands the real essence of the Tea Party movement. Support for the movement’s three core values of constitutionally limited government, fiscal responsibility, and free markets remains strong outside of the “Capitol City,” despite Romney’s loss to Obama.
A closer examination of the three key assertions Cillizza makes to support his claim that the movement “lies in tatters” shows that, to the contrary, the movement is well poised to succeed in the 2014 mid-term elections. From there, it will be positioned to return a supporter of constitutionally limited government to the Presidency in 2016, the first time the Oval Office will have had such an occupant in twenty-eight years.
To support his first assertion that the movement is “rent by internal disagreements,” Cillizza points to the bizarre goings on at FreedomWorks, where CEO Dick Armey attempted an unsuccessful coup in September, accompanied by a gun-toting personal security guard. The coup failed, but Matt Kibbe was reinstalled as the leader of the group – only after Armey was given an $8 million payoff.
While this salacious story leaves most following it slack-jawed in amazement, it’s little more than a circus sideshow. For many grassroots tea party activists around the country, FreedomWorks has long been considered a donation sucking collection of career Washingtonians skilled at issuing press releases and little else. Only a Washington media insider like Cillizza would be unwise enough to suggest that the FreedomWorks fiasco is anything but an irrelevant power struggle between competing groups of lifetime Washington conservative politicos.
The Tea Party movement is not now, nor has it ever been FreedomWorks, Dick Armey, or Matt Kibbe. Instead, it’s the millions of sincere activists around the country who belong to the estimated 3,000 plus local tea party groups spread throughout all the fifty states. These local groups with their vast network of distributed leadership continue to do the critical behind-the-scenes nuts and bolts political organizing the Washington based Republican establishment has shown itself to be completely incapable of accomplishing.
To support his second assertion that “losses among its most visible standard-bearers” signaled the end of the movement, Cillizza points to the defeats of Richard Mourdock in Indiana and Todd Akin in Missouri on the Senate side, and Allen West and Joe Walsh in the House. Cilizza fails to mention the even more surprising Senate losses of “moderate Republicans” Berg in North Dakota and Rehberg in Montana. Nor does he mention the fact that Republicans in 2012 kept the majority in the House that was powered by tea party energy in 2010.
Mourdock and Akin lost not because they successfully articulated support for the core values of the Tea Party movement and voters rejected that message, but because they were weak candidates who stumbled badly on the social issues. Akin, in fact, was opposed in the primary by a tea party candidate, and Mourdock’s loss was helped by the sore loser behavior of Richard Lugar, the establishment Republican whom he vanquished in the primary.
As for the loss by Allen West in Florida, it’s less an indication of a change in public sentiment than it is the temporary triumph of old school politics and big liberal money. West’s loss in 2012 —49.7% to 50.3%-– was even narrower than his victory in 2010 —54% to 46%. West’s 4.3% drop in support was attributable to two factors. First, the Republican establishment in the Florida State Legislature redistricted him into a much more Democratic district for 2012. Second, his opponent, the 29-year-old son of a wealthy construction business owner who spent millions of his own dollars to see his child elected, was the beneficiary of some racially charged attack ads against West that the mainstream media largely ignored.
As to Cillizza’s third assertion of “a growing sense the [T]ea [P]arty movement. . . will soon be nothing more than a blip in the country’s collective memory,” an examination of the evidence suggests that Cillizza is actually saying “there’s a growing hope among the mainstream media and Washington insiders the Tea Party movement is dead.” While that wish may be universally shared in the halls of the Washington Post, MSNBC, and the New York Times, and along the Boston to Washington corridor, the rest of the country remains a different story.
Consider, for instance, the spontaneous outpouring of public support for Chick-Fil-et in August, and September’s National Empty Chair Day phenomenon. Those strong sentiments have not suddenly disappeared. They remain fixed in the hearts and minds of millions of tea party activists around the country as we enter 2013.
There’s polling evidence to consider as well. Mainstream media outlets have been vigorously pushing the narrative that “polls show support for the Tea Party movement declining” ever since the dramatic Republican takeover of the House in November 2010, when Gallup polling marked the “high water mark” of tea party support among the general populace at 31% favorable, 26% unfavorable. CNN exit polls taken two years later during the November 2012 election showed that, among a sample of voters that day, 21% supported the tea party, while 30% opposed it.
If these polls are to be believed, 10% of the population have abandoned their support of the values of the Tea Party movement during these two years, while 4% of the population have joined in opposing the movement’s values.
Accepting for a moment the CNN exit poll numbers (which I suspect underestimate levels of tea party support), the 21% of the 128 million Americans who voted in 2012 and support the tea party still comprise a very large segment of the population —more than 26 million activists. This large group is highly motivated and absolutely dedicated to restoring our nation to its constitutional traditions of limited government.
The same CNN exit polls showed that voters favored repealing Obamacare by a 49% to 44% margin, and that ideologically, 35% of voters considered themselves conservatives, while only 25% called themselves liberal. Politically, 38% were Democrats, 32% Republicans, and 29% Independents.
This is not the picture of a country that wishes to reject constitutionally limited government and “fundamentally transform” the United States into a European socialist state. Instead, it looks like a country seeking a clear choice between those two options–a choice which, regrettably, was not offered in 2012. Romney’s loss to Obama, the failure of Republicans to gain control of the Senate, and the decline in the Republican majority in the House is directly attributable to the Republican Party’s failure to articulate this choice. The responsibility for the 2012 election debacle lies squarely on the shoulders of the Republican establishment, not the Tea Party movement.
The kabuki theater of the current so-called “fiscal cliff” crisis obscures a powerful truth known very well by the more than 26 million engaged tea party activists in the country today. Our nation simply can not sustain the reckless spending that has characterized our federal government under the Democratic administration of Barack Obama and the Republican administration of George W. Bush. When federal spending as a percentage of GDP jumps from 20% in 2008 to 24% in 2012, and the federal deficit balloons from $10 billion to $16 billion during the same four years, there’s only one common sense solution. We must cut spending, and cut it dramatically.
Though the “transformational leftists” won a Presidential victory in 2012, practically minded Americans of conservative and independent mindsets know that following leftist policies of increasing federal spending to 30% of GDP or more –the European model–is unsustainable.
The challenge then, is for the Tea Party movement to develop and support candidates who can articulate this message of fiscal responsibility, develop and implement the technologies to communicate this message to receptive potential voters (as the Obama team did so well with their voters in 2012), and develop an infrastructure of shoe leather, management systems, and technology to turn out this vote (as the Republican Party failed to do in 2012).
While the rallies that marked the launch of the Tea Party movement in 2009 and the election results of 2010 and 2012 were easy for the media to cover, infrastructure development is less visible. But the nuts and bolts of organizing an interconnected grassroots network of activists adept at using new technologies is where the true strength of the Tea Party movement lies. Washington insiders are simply not interested in covering that story.
The good news is that tea party activists around the country are currently engaged in this quiet but important mission of building an electorally competitive infrastructure. The better news is that the Washington Post will continue to miss this development.
The mainstream media has resolved to periodically churn out even more “tea party is dead” stories in 2013. Tea party activists, in contrast, have resolved to use 2013 to build the infrastructure for political success in 2014 and 2016. We’ll see which obituaries will be written after those two very important elections.