This February marks the three-year anniversary of the Tea Party, and with the 2012 presidential election in full swing, many are wondering whether the Tea Party will be a factor in bringing down the Obama presidency and have the ability to drive real government reform. Others are wondering if the movement has run out of gas at the start of the final lap (as a Ryun, I must periodically make running analogies). In all honesty, the answer is both. The Tea Party is at a crossroads in 2012. One route will slowly take it into relative obscurity and the other can lead it to having an even greater impact than it has had already.
As part of assessing those two paths, we should take an honest look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Tea Party movement. First, the good: there is no doubting the impact the Tea Party movement has had on the American political landscape since its inception. How many political movements can you name that within a year and half of inception impacted national elections the way the Tea Party did in 2010—even starting in the fall of 2009 in New Jersey and Virginia? The movement hit American politics like a tsunami, creating a seismic shift in the U.S. House and at the state legislative level. The most impressive aspect of that success is that many of the Tea Partiers who came out in 2009 were for the most part new to the process, and yet 18 months later, their learning curve had accelerated enough to make a significant national political impact.
In 2011, with the work of ?Tea Party groups in Ohio, Issue 3, a state referendum on Obamacare, made the ballot with the collection of an astounding 441,000 signatures and then passed overwhelmingly on election night. That's just one of the highlights of the movement's progress. There are numerous examples of local groups and localleaders making change happen in their communities, with victory after victory, new leaders, voter integrity and transparency projects, and efforts to stop spending increases.
Now here's the bad news: the Tea Partiers are losing the battle of definition. Consider the polls that deal with questions of limited government, accountable elected officials, free enterprise, and other core issues of the Tea Party movement. Most polls show support for these ideas somewhere between 60 and 70 percent. But if you add the Tea Party label to these ideals, most poll numbers will drop 15-20 points.
Recent polls show support for the Tea Party hovering around the mid-40s, demonstrating that the American people have trepidation about who and what the Tea Party is. Politics 101 is the battle of definition and the people who define themselves first typically win. The Tea Party has not won the battle of definition, and right now finds itself on the losing end of that fight.
Part of the reason it's losing is the behavior of so-called national Tea Party groups. That brings us to "the ugly." One of the most visible of these groups is Tea Party Express, which is just a name slapped over the Our Country Deserves Better political action committee. While it poses as a legitimate Tea Party organization, it is really nothing but a front for Russo and Associates, a group of long-time Republican consultants sitting in Sacramento, California.
Nearly 75 percent of all monies raised by the Tea Party Express ends up funneled to Russo and Associates, not the movement, making the owners of the firm a small fortune. "Express" backed some of the biggest losers of the 2010 cycle including Christine O'Donnell, Sharron Angle, and Joe Miller. They've blown millions on hotels, cruise ships, and dinners at five-star restaurants, all while soliciting money from the grassroots and backing candidates that will permit them to hijack their campaigns.
Recently Tea Party Express's Co-Chairman, Amy Kremer, formerly of Tea Party Patriots, another national group, lost a lawsuit to Jenny Beth Martin and Mark Meckler of the Tea Party Patriots over email lists Kremer allegedly took when she left her previous organization. Their tempest in a teapot is made more absurd by the fact it appears they're fighting over who will be the leader of a leaderless movement.
The Tea Party Patriots' leadership has also been involved in cease-and-desist letters over any local group that tries to use "tea party patriot" in its name, though no one really owns that term. Another group, Tea Party Nation, was sued in July 2011 for more than $640,000 by the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas for failure to pay the monies owed for an event that was eventually canceled.
The ugly part of the movement is not confined just to the national groups, but extends to some local groups that have devolved into battles for control instead of focusing on meaningful work that brings real change. They would do well to remember the words of Reagan: "There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn't mind who gets the credit."
It's time for the Tea Party to evolve and leave some of its past behavior behind. It's time for the national groups to be forced back into the shadows in favor of the thousands of local organizations that still can make a difference. The movement always has been, and always will be, about the local leaders and groups. The national groups could go away tomorrow, and the movement would be fine. The local leaders go away, and the movement dies.
IT'S TIME FOR THE NEW conservative grassroots to grow into sturdy oaks that can shape the landscape for decades to come. The Tea Party has been more effective than many ever thought it could be, but it needs to be more than it has been since roaring onto the political stage in 2009. The movement and many of its leaders have fought their way to the front lines of American politics and have now earned the right to take command of the army.
With the conservative movement lacking real leadership and conservative institutions failing cycle after cycle to have an impact on policy, the real Tea Party has been a rare example of effectiveness in winning elections. As the major party structures have taken a back seat to more effective outside groups, the Tea Party has proven what so many have said for so long—fiscally conservative principles are American values that will resonate with the majority of voters.
Now it's time to move beyond the money-making schemes and media hype. At a grassroots level, these now battle-hardened activists must become community leaders, candidates, and, yes, party officials. They need to focus on taking over the process in a very real way. As a force, they proved in 2010 and 2011 that they can overpower the unions and liberal groups that hijack elections across the country.
The Tea Party has been the driving force in American politics for nearly the last three years. Obama can't make that claim. The Republicans can't either. They wouldn't have their majority without thousands of local Tea Party groups who mobilized to bring an end to Nancy Pelosi's Congress.
If the Tea Party will evolve, and become sustainable with a more concise mission (we're taking over the local city council vs. we just want more freedom) and ability to fundraise, it can and will be a force beyond 2012. The Tea Party must become that slow-burning coal fire, hot and steady. But if it cannot get past the negative impressions and the internal dissension, it will become nothing but a footnote in American political history.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ned Ryun is the founder and president of American Majority, a political training institution.