Republican Party leaders should be embarrassed. Instead, the Republican establishment disdains this populist uprising. Rather than embracing this genuine movement, establishment politicians and consultants are calculating how to co-opt, sideline, or even defeat the newest phenomenon in politics: tea partiers.The Tea Party movement started as a healthy expression of concern over spending -- indeed, we shouldn't forget it stood initially for "Taxed Enough Already". And as a movement aimed at curbing the extent of government, at limiting taxes, and at pushing fiscal responsibility as a primary principle, it called back to what the Republican Party truly stood for. At least initially, it de-emphasized the culture wars and social issues to focus on a broadly libertarian agenda.
That would be arrogance, not leadership. It could be the downfall of Republican leaders, who have taken the Party of Reagan to the Party of No -- meaning No Ideas, No Leadership, and No Principles.
That agenda, in its very willingness to put aside the religious insurrection that has threatened to pull down the big tent of the GOP, could have served to bring in to the Republican Party (or simply the nascent Tea Party) both the libertarians who support gay marriage and various liberal social policies and the religious conservatives under a shared concern for limited government and fiscal responsibility. It could have, in effect, reset the Reagan coalition.
But it has become something wholly different -- a beast of which the Republican leadership should rightly be skeptical. Perhaps by the very nature of its broad-based appeal, other causes glommed on to the initially libertarian movement, and swung it around at 90 degrees to its original purpose. It is now a standard-issue populist wave, focused as much on religion and vague nationalism as it is on fiscal responsibility. Nor has the movement garnered much in the way of an intellectual foundation -- it is represented much more by the Sarah Palins of the right than the Paul Ryans.
The Tea Party in itself will never become a credible third party, much less a replacement for the GOP, as Viguerie seems to suggest it might; despite a swell of popular support, the Tea Partiers will go the way of the Greens: a vocal minority on the fringe of a major party. The religious right, despite all efforts in 2004, could not re-elect President Bush alone -- it needed the support of the more libertarian base of the party. And so Republican Party leaders are right to be wary, to hold the thing at arm's length, taking from it the good ideas, while eschewing the religion and nationalism that may lead to large gains temporarily, but in the end ruin chances of long-term ability to govern.