On the day after November’s midterm elections, the political world will instantly shift its focus and attention to 2016. And because Hillary Clinton is the clear frontrunner for the Democrats, most of the action–and chatter–will be on the Republican side, where the battle between Tea Party conservatives and establishment Republicans will rage again.
Joel Pollak’s new book, Wacko Birds: The Fall (and Rise) of the Tea Party, is the perfect place to start that discussion. Conservatives and grassroots activists at the center of Tea Party movement, establishment Republicans and operatives under siege, mainstream media reporters looking for a better understanding of the political history of the movement, and liberals who may even come to appreciate the Tea Party’s anti-cronyism will all find insights by reading Wacko Birds.
Pollak, the Breitbart News Senior Editor-at-Large, brings a unique set of experiences. He was in the arena as a Tea Party candidate before teaming up with the late Andrew Breitbart as the Age of Obama–and the Tea Party movement–started in earnest. As a naturalized citizen, he also is able to view America’s exceptionalism from the perspective of an immigrant.
Maligned by the mainstream press, liberals, establishment Republicans, and operatives in the bipartisan permanent political class, the Tea Party, as Pollak notes, blocked comprehensive amnesty legislation, checked runaway spending, emboldened conservative new media, ousted establishment Republicans, and brought more citizens into the political arena. The movement proved that the country was not shifting to the far left with Obama’s election and brought “new faces, and new diversity, to the Republican Party.”
“Far from being extreme, the substance of the Tea Party’s overarching principles–limited government, fiscal responsibility, individual liberty–were broadly shared by the American people as a whole,” Pollak writes.
And that is why the mainstream press, liberals, and especially the Republican ruling class sought to destroy it.
Pollak’s book takes readers back to the rise of the movement and explains why it was the perfect antidote to Barack Obama’s community organizing. He details the movement’s triumphs and failures and how Tea Party conservatives can learn from the last six years to succeed in the years ahead.
The media revealed their biases in favorably covering Occupy Wall Street, Obama, and pro-amnesty demonstrations while denigrating more peaceful Tea Party rallies, Sarah Palin, and anti-amnesty rallies. And conservatives felt that how the media unfairly trashed former Palin, considered the North Star of the movement after 2008, “was only a more obnoxious and obvious example of the way they had been treated for years.” As I wrote, Palin exposed the media’s biases against conservatives “just like Barack Obama exposed the media’s biases for liberals, especially those Obama’s mold.”
Pollak observes that “the Tea Party’s obituary has been written many times over–and yet it refuses to die.”
“To supporters, it is an authentic grass-roots conservative movement restoring the spirit of the U.S. Constitution, restraining a runaway federal government, and bringing power back into the hands of the people, often against the will of an entrenched GOP establishment that prefers power to principle,” Pollak writes. “To opponents, it is a racist mob, funded by shadowy corporate interests and manipulated by populist demagogues, that has blocked nearly everything that President Barack Obama has attempted to achieve, and which has corrupted our democratic system of government.”
Tea Party opponents are not just found on the left, of course. In fact, their most hostile adversaries may be establishment Republicans, as was made evident in this year’s Mississippi Senate runoff when establishment Republican operatives painted conservatives as racists to lure black Democrats to push Thad Cochran ahead of Chris McDaniel in the GOP race.
New media outlets have made the movement more resilient–and Pollak hails Breitbart’s vindication during the Anthony Weiner sexting scandal in which a citizen journalist broke “through the traditional defenses that mainstream media erected around politicians in power,” to eventually “rally the media itself in bringing down those walls. Pollak writes that Breitbart’s “legacy remains that of ‘citizen journalism,’ the idea that anyone, anywhere, through solid reporting, can break through the screen of the Beltway media and rock the foundations of power. Culturally, that challenge to the mainstream media monopoly remains the Tea Party’s enduring achievement.”
Staying outside of the established political system kept the movement’s purity in tact. Pollak writes that “the Tea Party was effective, in other words, because it could not be controlled, and because it did not play by the established insider rules of Washington politics.” But unlike the left’s netroots that took over the party’s establishment, to a certain extent, after Howard Dean failed to win the 2004 nomination, the Tea Party’s failure to secure leadership positions inside the halls also was responsible for some of its failures. The movement failed to win the White House and take back the Senate, could not coalesce around a candidate for president, did not counter the one-percent meme, and could not take over the stubborn machinery of the GOP.
Though the movement has succeeded in making the party more conservative when it comes to policy, it has swung wildly between triumphs and failures in elections. In 2014, the Tea Party could not knock off a Senate incumbent for the first time the movement formed, but it ousted House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA). But even after doing so, a Tea Party conservative could not again secure a top leadership slot, as Pollak explains in the book.
Cantor’s loss–and the movement’s failure to capitalize on it in the halls of power–sums up the state of play heading into 2016. And Pollak’s book is a must-read for political forecasters or anyone looking to learn more about the potential candidates as they try balance the need to engage the conservative grassroots and the institutional support the establishment provides.
In 2012, the Romney campaign mismanaged vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, and Pollak observed that “on the campaign trail, he seemed tired and reluctant, as if he were chafing at being too closely managed.”
“He was not able to speak about the topics with which he was most comfortable, in his favored wonkish style: instead he was expected to give inspiring rally speeches, which he had rarely done beore in his political career,” Pollak writes. “Crowds were enthusiastic, but not inspired by his appearances.” Ryan, a potential 2016 candidate, crafted the most recent budget compromise with Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and has tried to cobble together a comprehensive amnesty bill, perhaps with an eye toward a future general election. He has to make it there, of course, which may be more difficult in light of his policy positions in 2014.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is trying shed his “isolationist” label on foreign policy and courting Wall Street and high-tech executives who may want more amnesty legislation. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-TX), who got elected in the 2010 Tea Party wave by knocking off the GOP establishment’s preferred choice in Charlie Crist, has seen his poll numbers plummet after championing the “Gang of Eight” comprehensive amnesty bill. Pollak writes that Rubio was far from “the young man who had shaken up the establishment” and now “seemed part of it” after the Senate’s amnesty vote. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), another likely presidential candidate, may have been vindicated after being maligned for trying to defund Obamacare once Obamacare went live. GOP primary voters may remember–and reward–Cruz’s stanch opposition to Obamacare and trust him more than others when he vows to repeal every word of it in 2017.
Pollak also profiles Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who may also be a candidate if he wins reelection. The late Breitbart, along with Palin and others, helped Walker prevail (Pollak describes the famous “Game On” rally in Wisconsin that featured both Breitbart and Palin in vivid detail in his book) after enacting much-needed fiscal and entitlement reforms on the state level after the left threw the kitchen sink at him.
But if grassroots conservatives become more successful, they will have to try to change Washington without being changed by it, as the saying goes. Advance conservatism from the inside while resisting the temptation to plunge into the Washington cesspool that may now look like jacuzzi. And try to make the prose of governing a bit more poetic.
But conservatives have to win first, and 2012 showed that Republicans never win national elections if they do not run as conservatives. In 2012, Pollak wrote what I felt was the most important piece of strategic advice to the squeamish Romney campaign. After the Supreme Court upheld Obamacare by ruling that the “penalty” was somehow a “tax” even though the Obama administration argued that it was not a tax, Pollak presciently wrote that “now that Obama’s lawyers went to court and called it a tax, and Chief Justice John Roberts called it a tax (and spare us the non-distinction between “tax” and the “taxing power”) Obamacare is, undeniably, a massive tax on the middle class”:
The individual mandate was never intended to be a tax, Congress never called it a tax, and it wasn’t a tax in Massachusetts, either. Fine–but now that Obama’s lawyers went to court and called it a tax, and Chief Justice John Roberts called it a tax (and spare us the non-distinction between “tax” and the “taxing power”) Obamacare is, undeniably, a massive tax on the middle class. Obama lied. It’s that simple.
Obama lied. It’s that simple. The Tea Party has been ready to rally to Romney’s side over the Obamacare decision, overlooking his past in order to use him as the vehicle for repealing Obamacare and toppling Obama,” Pollak continued. “But if Romney won’t fight for conservative principles, the Tea Party is going to start looking elsewhere–fast. No one wants to live through the frustration of October 2008 all over again. No one wants to watch another conservative capitulate to Obama… This ain’t Etch-A-Sketch, Mitt. Go hard or go home.
Romney never attacked Obamacare as a tax on the middle class, perhaps because he didn’t want RomneyCare to be called a tax. And conservatives–and perhaps even many blue-collar Reagan Democrats–just stayed home on election night. Game over.
But it was hardly over for the Tea Party movement, despite all of its critics. And the Tea Party’s greatest test may come when the movement that formed in part because of George W. Bush’s big-government policies ultimately gains more power in D.C. Pollak writes that many “people perceive abuses of power when they feel themselves, or their political loyalties, to be on the receiving end,” yet “few display the same interest in, much less passion about, the importance of opposition once they or their party are in power.” Democrats have folded on issues they supposedly held dear–like privacy–once Obama occupied the White House. And if Tea Party conservatives don’t keep its leaders in line if they assume positions of power, then a new movement will replace it because the love of freedom and keeping government in check is in America’s DNA.
Speaking of the “Wacko Birds” label that Tea Partiers proudly wore, Pollak observes that there is “something about the eagle’s lonely, almost maddened cry that perfectly encapsulates the American character” and writes that, “today, the fate of liberty rests once again in the hands of the ‘Wacko Birds.'”
Potential candidates, consultants, and reporters will want to read Wacko Birds to better understand the landscape that awaits in the 2016 GOP primary. But Pollak’s Wacko Birds: The Fall (and Rise) of the Tea Party is worth reading particularly for those who identify with the Tea Party “Wacko Birds” who are trying to figure out how the movement can not only can win but endure.