Happy fifth birthday to the tea party from one of its biggest fans. I have spent most of my adult life preaching against the intrusiveness and profligacy of an unrestrained Washington, so the group’s agenda of limited government, free markets and fidelity to the Constitution resonated with me more than any message I’d heard in 20 years. Even the name, an acronym for “taxed enough already” that invokes the sprit of Colonial rebels, sounds just right.
(I am such a fan that it irks me no end that newspaper style calls for not capitalizing the name – Tea Party – despite the fact that we granted that courtesy to Occupy Wall Street, a bunch of privileged, redistributionist malcontents. Heard much from them lately, by the way?)
When the tea party burst upon the scene (I know that’s a cliché, but it seems appropriate) in 2009, its members were dismissed as yahoos and kooks, dangerous extremists but luckily for the country a fringe minority. Then they helped engineer a Republican takeback of the House in 2010, and they earned some grudging respect. Suddenly, no GOP presidential candidate could afford to challenge tea party positions on such things as tax policy and immigration.
At its fifth-anniversary year, the group is being dismissed again: The tea party’s popularity has peaked with the public. It cost the GOP some easy seats in 2012, and it will do the same thing this year. It fights with establishment Republicans as much as it does with Democrats, and that weakens the Republican Party.
Maybe, maybe not. I may be wrong, but I think discounting tea partyers is a mistake. For one thing, they’re just one part of a growing group of people unhappy with Washington. For another, they’ve already had a tremendous impact, forcing the GOP to pay more attention to the principles it was founded on but has drifted away from. And the movement has given us such stars as Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. A debate between them – a smart, gifted libertarian and a smart, gifted conservative – could help set the course for a new generation of Republicans.
Those of you who call the tea party extremist, by the way, might think about what it is you are really saying. Political factions do not form in a vacuum – they arise in reaction to something else. Progressives have pushed their agenda to the absolute edge, so the tea party reacts by going to the other edge. As extreme as you say the tea party is, that’s exactly how extreme the other side is. You support your favorite extremism, and I’ll support mine.