The Romney-fication of the Tea Party
Movements and elections are based on ideas, not compromises. In 2009, perhaps the most effective, most civil protest movement in U.S. history was born: the Tea Party sprung up in response to two political realities. The first was the Obama administration’s failure to cut government spending and deficits; the second was an emasculated Republican party that seemed willing to go along to get along with the thuggery and intimidation of the Democrats, most prominently under President George W. Bush's “compassionate conservatism.” What most pundits missed in Obama's 2008 electoral triumph was that the GOP got routed not because leftism was ascendant, but because the GOP did not resemble conservatism.
The rise of the Tea Party was aided by the integrity of the movement. This integrity was based entirely on ideas, and the ideas were quite simple: freedom, responsibility, and government accountability. These three principles created a huge tent for the movement to exist under: Social conservatives and social libertarians could both come together to petition the government to get its spending under control; fiscal conservatives could join the other participants on spending issues and agree with them on issues of government overreach and taxation. Even socially conservative and libertarian-leaning Democrats joined the movement in opposition to Obama's cap-and-trade and health care bills. Four in 10 Tea Party members were registered Democrats in the 2008 election cycle.
Only a movement based on clear ideas and an ideology with mass appeal could attract such a diversity of political adherents.
After early victories -- the defeat of tax and spending bills in California, and the election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts and Chris Christie in New Jersey -- the movement had an historic victory in the 2010 midterm elections. The election brought to power governors like Scott Walker -- in, of all places, Wisconsin -- who followed through with Tea Party ideas and struck a lethal blow to the government spending power of public employee unions by eliminating collective bargaining. The activist unionized left and the Democrat party made Madison ground zero for an assault on Tea Party activism; the left lost. The lessons of Wisconsin: Tea Party ideas can win elections and defeat the left anywhere.
Which brings us to 2012. Having achieved all-out victory and proving that real Tea Party conservatism even appeals in some of the bluest states, the GOP has aligned behind the one candidate in the Republican field furthest from these ideas: Mitt Romney.
To be sure, all of the remaining candidates in the GOP field have liabilities. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have both committed spending and size-of-government conservative heresies. While of concern, given their overall records of accomplishment for the conservative cause they are forgivable. Ron Paul, while excellent on fiscal issues, is incompatible with Tea Party ideals because of his dangerously irresponsible foreign policy and anti-Israel stance.
Yet only Mitt Romney presents something not only lethal to the GOP electoral chances against Barack Obama, but also something lethal to the Tea Party itself: a complete void of ideas and consistency.