Pouring the Tea into the GOP

“I want you to infiltrate the Republican Party.”

So said an August speaker at a meeting of the North Metro Tea Party in the Twin Cities. Such a charge is hardly noteworthy in and of itself. It has long been the goal of many within the Tea Party to affect public policy. Doing that requires electing public servants committed to the movement’s principles. Electing candidates is a function of political parties, and the Republican Party is an obvious place to start.

However, this speaker was no Tea Partier. This was Tony Sutton, the sitting chair of the Republican Party of Minnesota. For those in attendance, his invitation was shocking.

The assumption among Tea Partiers has often been that anyone established enough to chair a state party would view the Tea Party as a threat. That assumption was fostered at a RightOnline breakout session held in Minneapolis earlier this year. RedState’s ColdWarrior was among the panelists encouraging conservative activists to focus on becoming precinct committeemen and shift the GOP from an ideologically divided party to a decisively conservative one.

[Republicans] are terrified that you’re going to do this. They do not want the word to get out… They may say something like, “You’ve got to get involved in the political process.” To some people, that means sending a check to the Republican National Committee and getting an embossed card back with your name on it. Sorry but that’s not being involved in the Republican Party.

They want your money. They want you to make phone calls. But they don’t want you to become a voting member of the party, because you might be able to elect better leaders and get rid of them….

Regardless of motive, leaders of the Republican Party of Minnesota (MNGOP) have reached out to Tea Partiers and invited them to attend the caucus in 2012. Tea Party groups in the state had already been planning for caucus night. However, they had done so anticipating a hostile reception.

Now it seems the welcome wagon has been rolled out. Since Sutton’s visit to the North Metro Tea Party, an invitation was extended to select activists to panel a breakout session at the recently concluded Republican Midwest Leadership Conference (MLC). This author was among those activists.

Such carousing with the political establishment has generated controversy in both camps. Many Tea Party activists are concerned that the Republicans are trying to co-opt the movement. Many Republicans are concerned that the Tea Party is politically toxic. The objective of the MLC breakout session was to assuage these concerns by demonstrating the distinct yet complimentary nature of both groups.

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.

Once President Obama began his fundamental transformation of America, it became apparent that apathy was no longer an option. Though the Republican brand had lost credibility amongst conservatives, it was apparent that something had to be done. That impulse coalesced to become the Tea Party, a movement of disaffected conservatives who had fallen off the Republican bandwagon to join many who had never found a political home.

The bottom line recognized by SCGPR’s research and embraced by some within the leadership of the MNGOP is that the Tea Party and the Republican Party are estranged family. As such, distrust, resentment, and bitterness on both sides threaten to preclude reconciliation. But if those hurdles could be overcome, if the Republican brand could be recast in conservative gold, research suggests Tea Party Republicans would have broad appeal.

Of course, the Tea Party has its own branding issues. The mainstream media has had some success in portraying the movement as extreme, racist, and terroristic. While these labels are absurd on their face, many among the apolitical mob have no frame of reference to know better. Still, presented absent the brand, Tea Party principles are widely accepted.

So it seems the Tea Party and the GOP need each other. The former needs the latter’s infrastructure to elect favorable candidates. The latter needs the former’s conviction and energy to revive its potency. Despite territorial protestations on either side, this is real politick.

Even so, the movement cannot wholly merge with the party. The lesson learned from the past 15 years is that the function of ideological formation must remain separate from the function of political action. One corrupts the other. A political party’s mission to elect candidates undervalues ideology. An ideological movement’s mission to promote principle undervalues the practical. So the two must maintain a delicate symbiotic relationship, keeping to their own roles and trading value for value.

One of the ways the Tea Party will retain its distinction is to remain effectively non-partisan. It is true that most of the movement’s political action will channel through the GOP. However, that is only because the GOP is most likely to embrace Tea Party principles. The Democrats are just as capable if not as willing to trend conservative. Indeed, engaging Democrats and trying to shift their party to the right must remain a Tea Party priority. It would be a wonderful day that would see the two major political parties competing to better steward individual rights. Such a day may never come if the Tea Party neglects Democrats.

In the short run, however, the immediate political emergency requires a uniform assault against President Obama and his leftist allies. That means working with the Republicans to restore the credibility of their brand, recast them as true conservatives, and take back our country for liberty.