One of the most important contributions of the Tea Party movement to American conservatism is arguably its subordination of partisan politics to the actual mechanics of public policy. But to succeed and remain relevant, the Tea Parties might have to do more than just subordinate party to policy. Their members will have to learn to separate personality from principle, and choose the latter over the former.
Though its critics derided the Tea Parties as an "astroturf" movement cooked up by Fox News and the RNC, the reaction of Republican Party leaders-- ranging from frustration to outright desperation-- tells a different story, the story of a movement truly independent of the party apparatus.
When Senator Cornyn (R-TX) tried to speak at a Tea Party event, he was booed and shouted down by an audience angry at his vote for the $700 billion TARP bailout. In Kentucky's 2010 U.S. Senate primary, after Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's hand-picked candidate, Trey Grayson, raised money at a $500/plate fundraiser attended by 17 Republican Senators who voted for TARP, Kentucky Republicans raged against the establishment and nominated Tea Party outsider Rand Paul. When Republicans nominated a candidate in the 2009 NY-23 special election who Tea Party goers considered ideologically indistinguishable from her Democratic opponent, they abandoned the GOP and threw their support behind the Conservative Party candidate, Doug Hoffman.
At Tea Party rallies across the country, it was refreshing to hear Americans discussing policies instead of politics, complaining about bank bailouts, hastily-crafted stimulus bills, and a lack of transparency and accountability in the legislative process-- and not just those "evil" Democrats. The rhetoric was something more than the same, tired, old, red-team / blue-team talk-radio schtick, and Tea Party goers, though more likely to identify as "conservative," were beginning to criticize the Republican Party as well as the Democratic Party in the same breath. This was a significant development in American electoral politics. Something had changed.
But as I stated earlier, if the new focus on policy is to have any lasting effect, Tea Party goers are likely going to have to learn to distinguish personality from principle. While politicians courting the Tea Party vote may use their compelling personalities to tell voters what they'd like to hear when it comes to the policies they now care about, that doesn't at all prove that the politician is actually principled enough to effect those public policy changes they espouse on the campaign trail. The only way for a voter to discern which candidates are actually principled is to examine past words and actions to see if they mesh with the candidate's personality and rhetoric on the campaign trail.
Take for example, Michele Bachmann, who is currently leading the Republican primary field in the key early-voting state of Iowa. She has aggressively positioned herself as a leader in the Tea Party movement, but shouldn't voters find it odd that a leader in the "Taxed Enough Already" movement is a former tax collector for the IRS? And why aren't Tea Party goers-- who generally support less federal spending, less federal meddling, and more fidelity to the Constitution-- scratching their heads at Bachmann's refusal to join six other GOP candidates and sign a pledge to cut, cap, and balance the federal budget, while being the first GOP presidential candidate to sign a pledge to ban pornography (violating the First Amendment) and Constitutionally define marriage (federalizing a state issue)? And what about her vote in favor of the $152 billion George W. Bush-Nancy Pelosi stimulus bill in 2008?
These are all controversial issues, worth a rigorous public debate, and "the right" position on each of them is not the subject of discussion for this article. What should be clear, however, is that Bachmann's positions and her past seem to contradict the rhetoric that we've been hearing from most of the Tea Party movement for two years now. While some of them are moving the conversation in a direction that focuses on policy over partisanship, the disconnect between their rhetoric and which candidates they support might be an indication that they haven't yet put policy above personality... and with a personality as vibrant, exciting, and genuinely likeable as Michele Bachmann's, it's no wonder she's polling so well in Iowa.