- - Monday, January 23, 2012

So long as the Washington establishment continues to underestimate - and even misunderstand - the Tea Party, insiders will continue to be pummeled by the grass-roots giant that no longer sleeps. Democrats dismissed the Tea Party in 2010 and took a historic shellacking. Republicans would be wise to learn from their mistake.

First, let’s remind ourselves, the Tea Party is not a formal political party or even an advocacy group, but rather a state of mind. If you believe in constitutional fidelity, limited government and the free market, then you don’t need your name on some official roster or even to have attended a rally to be part of the Tea Party movement. You simply need to use your vote and your effort to demand that our leaders embrace these principles as well.

The Tea Party plays chess, not checkers. The nascent movement demonstrated remarkable maturity in 2010, for example, by resisting the temptation to form a third party. Memories still loom large of the 2000 presidential race when Green Party candidate Ralph Nader took just enough votes from Democrat Al Gore in Florida to tip the balance and award the White House to Republican George W. Bush. So the Tea Party wisely exercises a disciplined loyalty, if not to the Republican Party, then at least to the William F. Buckley Jr. rule of supporting the most conservative candidate who can be elected.

In truth, the Tea Party has been far more loyal to the GOP than the GOP has been to the Tea Party. While the establishment abandoned and even openly sabotaged Tea Party Senate candidates such as Nevada’s Sharron Angle, the Tea Party still delivered a historic victory to Republicans that captured the House. In return, the GOP establishment reneged on its campaign pledge to cut $100 billion in spending, capitulated on yet another debt-ceiling increase and then promptly blamed the Tea Party for obstructionism.

Undeterred, the happy warriors of the Tea Party are playing the long game. The conservative movement, after all, is just that - a movement. Although a few shortsighted members pose purity tests that not even Ronald Reagan could pass, the reality is that re-embracing America’s founding principles will not be achieved in one knockout election by some mythically perfect candidate. So the Buckley Rule of campaigns prevails and the Milton Friedman rule of political profit offers the best hope for a conservative victory.

“It’s nice to elect the right people,” said Friedman, the late, free-market economist, “but that isn’t the way you solve things. The way you solve things is by making it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right things.”

This is not to say that Newt Gingrich is the “wrong” person - far from it. While he has frustrated conservatives at times, his contributions to the movement have been monumental. The Contract With America. A balanced budget. Welfare reform. A Republican takeover of Congress. No serious discussion of the conservative movement of the 20th century is complete without acknowledging Mr. Gingrich’s enormous contributions to it.

It is within this framework that Mr. Gingrich’s rise and the Tea Party’s embrace of him should be viewed. The conservative movement deserves an unapologetic, full-throated Great Communicator once again. Few can articulate conservatism as effectively as the former speaker. Plus, Mr. Gingrich wisely recognizes that the mainstream media are complicit with Democrats in general and with President Obama in particular. He openly refers to them as his “secondary opponent,” and he refuses to fall prey to their duplicity. What’s more, he has demonstrated amazing resilience in the face of an onslaught. He can take a punch, and Team Obama and its media allies will certainly throw plenty.

It’s apt that Chuck Norris recently endorsed Mr. Gingrich. Legend has it that Chuck Norris was once stabbed with a knife, and the knife bled to death. Yeah, that Chuck Norris. Even he’s a little scared of Mr. Gingrich, but he’s not alone.

The Washington GOP establishment fears Mr. Gingrich. Good. To the Tea Party, that’s a feature, not a bug. We remember that they feared Ronald Reagan, too. Now they warn us that Mr. Gingrich will embrace big government and, believe me, the Republicans who gave us “no bureaucrat left behind” and the largest expansion of Medicare in history know a thing or two about big government.

So why do so many in the Tea Party believe that Mr. Gingrich is our best hope to further the conservative movement? It’s really simple: the Buckley Rule and the Friedman Rule. Voters in South Carolina proclaimed unambiguously that Mr. Gingrich is the most electable and the most conservative. What’s more, he has plotted an election course - and this is key - where he profits politically by doing right by conservatives and the Tea Party.

There are valid arguments to be made for and against both Mr. Gingrich and Mitt Romney even though each is preferable to President Obama. But consider this: Mr. Romney’s path to the nomination largely ignores the Tea Party while Mr. Gingrich embraces it. In fact, if Mr. Gingrich is to win the nomination and the White House, it will be because the Tea Party made it possible. So, in the end, who do you believe is more likely to be loyal to the Tea Party principles?

Dr. Milton R. Wolf, a Washington Times columnist, is a radiologist and President Obama’s cousin. He blogs at miltonwolf.com.