First, those of us putting the session together had to demonstrate our thesis to ourselves. In our meetings with MNGOP activist Jonathan Aanestad, who was assigned by the party to coordinate the MLC breakout session, we discovered that there had been an ideological struggle taking place within the MNGOP between conservatives and moderates long before the Tea Party rose. Aanestad has been a leader in that debate. Along with Pat Strother, CEO of the marketing firm Strother Communications Group (SCGPR), Aanestad conducted extensive market research analyzing the state of the Republican brand.
Though it was not their objective, what SCGPR found was nothing less than an empirical explanation for the rise of the Tea Party. They found that Americans identify as conservative 2 to 1 over liberal. They found that while the Republican brand was stale or negative among many focus group participants, conservative principles and values were dominant. They concluded that the Republican brand had been critically weakened by ideological moderation. In order for the MNGOP to increase their effectiveness, SCGPR concluded they must rebrand the party as decisively conservative and committed to four “pillars” – fiscal responsibility, sensible government, free enterprise, and personal responsibility.
As a Tea Party activist, considering SCGPR’s research was tremendously validating. Particularly striking were those pillars. The three core principles of Tea Party Patriots are listed on their website as fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government, and free markets. Many local groups add individual rights to the list. These four are all but identical to SCGPR’s pillars. In essence if not directly, Aanestad and Strother are saying that the Republican brand is failing because it lacks what the Tea Party is preaching. Isn’t that precisely what the Tea Party has said all along?
The spring of the Tea Party can be traced back to 1994. After four decades of Democratic control in Congress, the Contract with America ushered in the Republican Revolution. For years, talk radio pundits had been preaching the conservative gospel, leading the faithful to believe that electing Republicans would affect conservative policy. The Contract aspired to bring “the end of government that is too big, too intrusive, and too easy with the public’s money.” It included such crowd-pleasing commitments as term limits, a balanced budget amendment, and tort reform. There was talk of eliminating entire federal departments and cutting spending in the true sense of the term, utilizing zero base-line budgeting. Virtually none of it happened.
Ten years later, not only did the Republicans retain the presidency for George W. Bush. They saw notable gains in both the House and Senate. With near total control of the federal government, there was nothing to stand in the way of the old Contract reforms. If there was ever a time when conservative principles would manifest into policy, that was it. Instead, “Bush increased discretionary outlays by an estimated 48.6 percent.”
The resulting lack of enthusiasm among conservatives enabled the Democratic gains of 2006 and 2008, the latter seeing the nomination of the uninspiringly moderate Senator John McCain. Conservative activists’ festering disillusionment metastasized into full blown apathy, allowing an unaccomplished community organizer to become president of the United States.