The Tea Party movement is at a crossroads. It will either morph into a viable, third party by 2012, or it will fade away as most populist movements do. It will either develop into a platform of credible fiscal conservatism and constitutional fidelity, or it will be co-opted by GOP bigwigs whose sole agenda lies in bashing President Obama, Speaker Pelosi, and Senator Reid.
CNN ran a thought provoking article exploring the direction of the Tea Party movement. There are growing concerns that the populist movement is internally fractured, caught between GOP elites and legitimate grassroots protestors. What originated as a strictly grassroots outcry against big government, big spending, and constitutional infidelity, was in part co-opted by the likes of GOP figureheads and Fox News. Soon, protests became a forum to bash Obama and the Democrats, while ignoring the huge deficits, massive debt, Dollar devaluation, and Wall St. bailouts of the Bush administration and a largely Republican Congress.
To be completely accurate, the present Tea Party movement owes its existence to Ron Paul, a divisive figure among current Tea Party activists. In late 2007, his historic, grassroots presidential campaign raised $4.3 million on November 5 and a record setting $6 million on December 16, the date of the original Boston Tea Party. Tens of thousands of individuals, all across the political spectrum, donated to the "Champion of the Constitution" and the most fiscally conservative member of Congress, without any help from Fox News or the GOP establishment. Dick Armey, Newt Gingrich, Sean Hannity, Sarah Palin, or Michelle Bachmann didn't promote or participate in these purely, grassroots driven events.
Fast forward to 2009, and with President Obama and a Democratic Congress in charge, suddenly the GOP leadership and Fox News come out of the woodworks. Millions of tea party protestors take to the streets to criticize the big government, big deficits, and huge debt of Barack Obama. Suddenly, deficits, debt, a weak Dollar, and ever expanding government mattered, even though deficits, debt, a weak Dollar, and ever expanding government were signatures of the Bush administration.
Liberal pundits and independent voters were rightly skeptical. Where were these protestors during the Bush era? The protestors were now mocking Congress for not reading novel length bills before voting on them, but why were they not protesting when Congress passed a 300+ page Patriot Act that no one even read? The protests, though impressive in number, presented a stridently partisan image to skeptics and astute observers.
Now, one major tea party group is set to hold a major convention in February 2010. Sarah Palin will be the keynote speaker. Will Palin emerge as the face of the Tea Party? She's certainly a celebrity among many GOP circles, but her performance as a vice presidential candidate and her extremely brief tenure as Alaska Governor raise many questions. And for Tea Party activists, what about her fellowship with John McCain, the candidate who fully supported the $700 billion Wall St. bailout and whose policies were projected to continue the big deficits and massive debt of George W. Bush?
Or, will Newt Gingrich emerge as the Tea Party leader? Newt is extremely popular in conservative circles and is currently heading up American Solutions, a nonpartisan think tank. He was instrumental in crafting balanced budgets during the latter years of the Clinton administration, although his ethics violations and marital indiscretions undermine his moral credibility. In addition, Tea Party activists should know that Gingrich would have "reluctantly" voted "yes" on the $700 billion Wall St. bailout. He, like Palin, also advocates virtually unlimited military spending, even though unchecked military spending was largely responsible for the big deficits and massive debt of the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations.
Will Ron Paul or someone of his ilk lead the charge and turn the tea party movement into a viable, third party? Dr. Paul has inspired a whole new slate of state and federal candidates to run in 2010, and his status has grown since he was the only presidential candidate to predict the economic crisis. His brand carries the potential to appeal to a broad base of Republicans, Independents, Democrats, and Third Party groups, but thus far, his advocacy of a more limited, cost-effective foreign policy remains repugnant to a significant portion of the GOP base. The GOP establishment also detests Paul, because he was quite open in his criticism of several of the party's policies during the 2007-2008 presidential election, though it is this honesty and eminent credibility that could expand his movement's following across party lines.
At this time, the Tea Party is up for grabs. Three, distinct possibilities exist. First, it could fade away into the sunset as most grassroots movements sadly do. Second, it could splinter into a "Bush-lite" faction with a celebrity type leader and a platform that talks a big game about limited government, the Constitution, and fiscal conservatism, but in reality, is not all that different in practice. Third, it could splinter into a more independent-libertarian faction with a leader who takes on the party establishment on both sides of the aisle and offers a whole new, fiscally conservative vision for domestic and foreign policy.
Over the next couple of years, we should get our answer.