- - Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Republican Party is at a crossroads, trying to determine the best route forward for future elections. If the Tea Party movement wants to remain relevant, its members will have to do the same.

Right now, they’re not. If anything, Tea Party supporters are unwilling to accept responsibility for the Nov. 6 presidential election debacle. As Judson Phillips of Tea Party Nation recently told Washington Times reporter Seth McLaughlin, “They went well out of their way to ignore us, marginalize us and pretend we did not exist, and they gave us the most liberal nominee in the history of the Republican Party.”

Let’s not go overboard. While Mitt Romney definitely is a political moderate, he’s hardly the GOP’s “most liberal nominee” as a presidential candidate. How quickly we forget Gerald R. Ford — or Thomas Dewey, for that matter. Meanwhile, most Republicans didn’t ignore, marginalize or pretend the Tea Party didn’t exist, though some of them definitely got angry, fed up and probably wished it weren’t around.

Tea Party activists have to accept their lumps for Mr. Romney’s defeat. It’s true many of them didn’t initially support his candidacy, but that’s irrelevant. The GOP uses a big-tent philosophy, meaning fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, moderates, libertarians, right-leaning independents and, yes, Tea Partyers have a role under the political big top. When there’s success, they deserve partial credit. When there’s failure, they must accept partial blame. That’s how politics work.

Alas, this grass-roots movement doesn’t look at the political process in the same way. The Tea Party has no formal leadership, no interest in becoming a political party, and stands for principles rather than power. While these are admirable qualities, it is difficult to figure out exactly where its members stand on certain issues.

That’s why the Tea Party has long been misunderstood. People think its activists hate government, authority, social programs and politics in general. They’ve been called “extremists,” “racists” and “fanatics.” Many people are convinced that Tea Party activists are mostly white, socially conservative, middle-class seniors who want to start a political and economic revolution.

If you look closely at various books and studies, however, you’ll find that some or all of these assumptions are inaccurate. Here’s a small sampling:

An April 2010 New York Times/CBS News poll produced some startling information about Tea Party supporters. For instance, 41 percent supported civil unions versus all respondents at 24 percent, 45 percent supported the availability of abortion “with limits,” and 73 percent supported the proposition that blacks and whites had an equal shot at “getting ahead in today’s society.”

Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson’s book, “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism” (Oxford University Press, 2012) called it “an innovative version” of “recurrent populist upsurges on the right.” As Ms. Skocpol told Harvard Magazine, the authors think Tea Partyers are “quite effective organizers, and they’re quite pragmatic in their political choices.” President Obama “symbolizes things that they’re very worried about: tax-and-spend liberal government, asking hard-working Americans to help pay for benefits for freeloaders, and immigration.”

The Cato Institute’s Emily McClintock Ekins and David Kirby noted in an August 2012 paper that the Tea Party has “strong libertarian roots and is a functionally libertarian influence on the Republican Party.”

The Tea Party’s future could be very bright. Supporters probably will continue to exert some influence at the grass-roots level but won’t be as strong as before. They still can play a role in determining how the GOP should move forward, either by reforming the party, choosing a real conservative or a Beltway candidate for 2016, and leading discussions of fiscal versus social conservatism. The Tea Party even could act as the tugboat pushing the good ship GOP to calmer — and better — political waters.

This will happen only if the Tea Party, much like the GOP, is willing to evolve with the times.

Michael Taube is a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a columnist with The Washington Times.