Looking Back On the Tea Party

img_1330This morning, fellow Shenandoah Valley blogger Lynn Mitchell asked the question, “Why did the tea party (and libertarians) decide to take over the Republican Party instead of the Democratic Party whose policies they were supposedly against?” Well, as a person who has been involved in tea party politics for a number of years, I wanted to offer my take on the situation.

First off, let me begin by saying that no group is a monolithic unit.  Yes, it is easy to lump people together, to assume that their history, motivations, and goals are unified, but that simply would not be the case.  Anyway, like a number of folks, I joined the tea party while also a member of the Republican Party.  At that time, I had been growing increasingly dissatisfied with the direction of the GOP.  I recall saying at the time that the tea party would never have come into being if the GOP held firm to its supposed principles.

Although Republican politicians seemed to employ inspiring rhetoric when it came to limiting the power of the government, their actual track record was pretty poor.  It is tempting to say that the tea party had its start with the election of Barack Obama, but the truth is that for many of us its roots are earlier, the presidency of George W. Bush.

Let’s look back at George W. Bush, shall we?  What do we find?  An exploding national debt, increased federal government control in areas where it had no defined constitutional authority such as education and healthcare, and a troubling and expensive foreign policy based upon misinformation and a neoconservative philosophy.  Only in recent years have Republican officials finally begun to admit what many people in the tea party have known for years, that a lot of things went wrong in the eight years of the George W. Bush presidency.

So why did the tea party try to push the Republican Party harder instead of the Democratic?  Well, the GOP was seen as having closer ideological ties, especially given that many of us were disaffected Republicans.  Economically, there was supposedly a closer link between the tea party and what the Republican claimed to stand for.  Has that always been the case?  No.  Perhaps the last, best example of what might be considered a “tea party Democrat” (at least in my mind) is the Bourbon Democrats.  As Wikipedia states:

Bourbon Democrats were promoters of a form of laissez-fairecapitalism which included opposition to the protectionism that the Republicans were then advocating as well as fiscal discipline. They represented business interests, generally supporting the goals of banking and railroads but opposed to subsidies for them and were unwilling to protect them from competition. They opposed imperialism and U.S. overseas expansion, fought for the gold standard, and opposed bimetallism and promoted hard and sound money. Strong supporters of reform movements such as the Civil Service Reform and opponents of the corrupt city bosses, Bourbons led the fight against the Tweed Ring. The anti-corruption theme earned the votes of many Republican Mugwumps in 1884.”

Unfortunately, the Democratic Party has not held to these principles in about a century.  Given how much time has passed and the great partisan divide which presently exists, a lot of folks see the Democratic Party as irredeemable.

In order to make a greater impact in politics, some candidates tried running under the unofficial tea party label.  Here in Virginia, one could argue that Jamie Radtke was the first statewide tea party candidate.  In 2012, she challenged former Republican governor and senator George Allen for the Republican nod for U.S. Senate.  In the June primary, she won 23.05% of the vote to Allen’s 65.45%.  However, given Allen’s massive advantage in name ID and fundraising, it wasn’t a particularly shocking a result.

However, after that election, the tea party had changed.  Rather than standing strictly on principle, it had somehow begun to morph into a wing of the GOP.  Originally, the local group disdained both President Barack Obama and Senator John McCain.  In the November election that followed, however, we were told that we must rally behind the Republican candidates to defeat Obama and his allies.

In the 2013 contest, the Republican Party of Virginia switched their nomination process from a primary to a convention, presumably to aid gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli.  However, that change had a very profound down-ticket result.  E.W. Jackson, who finished last in the 2012 GOP senate primary, began to gain momentum.  In this part of the state, he saw in upsurge in popularity with the tea party, although I would argue he was far more concerned with social issues than the traditional fiscal matters that drove the tea party.  As a result, the regional tea party priorities began to shift again, adopting many of the same principles of groups such as the Valley Family Forum.  Again, prior to this Virginia Republican convention, local tea party goers were informed by the head of the Shenandoah Valley Tea Party that the group would support whichever candidates won the GOP nod.

So, to return to Lynn Mitchell’s question, I would say that the reason that the tea party is trying to take over the Republican Party is that it has now become one of a multitude of factions within the GOP.  It no longer stands outside of party politics as originally envisioned.  As such, that fight for control exploded over the weekend in Virginia’s 7th congressional district where Eric Cantor’s ally, Linwood Cobb, was booted for the tea party choice.  A major goal of the tea party these days seems to be to purge the Republican Party of what are seen as big government leaders and politicians.

There is very much an ongoing civil war for the heart of the Virginia Republican Party between those who are primarily motivated to win and those who are motivated by principle (although what that principle happens to be can be a variety of things).  Saturday’s battle is only a continuation of this conflict.

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