Tea-Partying Through Tornadoes

At The Next Right, John Henke has an excellent piece today highlighting both the strengths and the weaknesses of the Tea Party movement. It's very much worth reading in its entirety, but I'll excerpt a few bits here:
The Tea Party outrage could organize around viable policies and strategies to accomplish their goals. That would be a movement. But if it does not identify viable policies and strategies to accomplish their goals - and leadership to move them forward - then the outrage without progress will eventually reduce them (us) to a mob. [...]

The tea party movement is not a single organization with millions of email addresses. It is tens of thousands of small groups and individuals, each of which has dozens, hundreds or thousands of email addresses. The tea party movement really is a decentralized, spontaneous, grassroots reaction.

Of course, that has up and down sides. Instead of organizing to accomplish specific victories (as Moveon.org has done on occassion), they may more closely resemble the anti-war crowd - full of sound and fury, but without much specific direction. The anti-war "movement" eventually became alienated or folded into organizations like Moveon.org.
The grassroots nature of the movement -- the boiling up of popular anger over being pushed too far towards centralized Washington control -- is indeed the most hopeful feature of the Tea Party. And I think he mistakes the Party when he compares it to the anti-war movement; Partiers appear, at least, much more willing to roll up their sleeves and get into the dirty work of actually volunteering for candidates, rather than just attending rallies.

But he's right to point to the central weakness of the Tea Party movement -- it is essentially a negative campaign. There are times to draw the line, to say, "The government can go this far and no further." And these are times that require lines to be drawn. But to be an effective political force, you need to be for something, and I haven't seen that out of the Tea Party yet. Perhaps 2010 and 2012 will prove me wrong; I'd be very glad to be proved wrong on this one, but I don't see it in the cards yet.

There is another danger, I think, posed to the Tea Party in its very decentralization: that is a lack of cohesion. The Party's ability to retain its primary focus of a libertarian-minded Republicanism based on free markets, and resist the influence of the Palin populists, will be another key test of its ability to remain independent of the GOP. How the Party moves into mainstream politics will be tremendously important, as David Brooks hinted yesterday:
Over the course of this year, the tea party movement will probably be transformed. Right now, it is an amateurish movement with mediocre leadership. But several bright and polished politicians, like Marco Rubio of Florida and Gary Johnson of New Mexico, are unofficially competing to become its de facto leader. If they succeed, their movement is likely to outgrow its crude beginnings and become a major force in American politics. After all, it represents arguments that are deeply rooted in American history.
I probably have come off more skeptical of the movement that I really am: I think the Tea Party can do a tremendous amount of good; that last line I excerpt from Brooks is exactly correct. But the movement needs to mature, get some intellectual grounding, and figure out what it is for -- not just what it opposes. If it can do that, I'll be much more willing to join in.