- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 10, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The “tea party” movement has become the most important, yet misunderstood, dynamic driving the American political landscape.

Democrats, at least publicly, deride and dismiss the movement, hoping it will go away and leave their House and Senate majorities intact.

Republicans think they may benefit from, perhaps even co-opt, the movement and its energy, but some fear it could co-opt the party instead.

And the mainstream media, to the extent they even acknowledge the movement exists, think it’s a far-right flash in the pan.

But the tea parties and their associated groups, such as the 9.12 Project groups, defy simplistic characterizations. There is not one tea party, but many decentralized and locally controlled groups, with some more effective than others. That decentralization is both the strength of the movement and its challenge. There is no Ross Perot to fund and coordinate the tea parties, as he did with United We Stand, nor to overshadow them and detract from their message.

Tea parties draw heavily from independents, traditional and social conservatives, and even libertarians, but conservative economic policies emphasizing limited government, low taxes and fiscal responsibility are what they demand from candidates. They don’t want to be a political party; they want to be a political force.

Yes, President Obama and the Democrats’ massive expansion of government spending and proposed tax increases may have sparked the tea party fire, but it was Republican largesse and broken promises under President George W. Bush that provided the initial kindling.

While most of the tea partiers are new to the political process and face a learning curve, they aren’t stupid — a mistake the Washington elite regularly makes. They read proposed legislation — which is more than most of the members of Congress can claim — they listen, ask questions and learn quickly. And they take action, from marches and protests to registering voters to getting people involved in all levels of the electoral process. It’s average people engaging in grass-roots democracy, many for the first time.

For example, one of my former neighbors saw me last March and said he had never been involved in politics, but he couldn’t sit back anymore. On April 15, he saw the Dallas tea party’s event and signed up to be a ZIP code coordinator. He now has several hundred new activists on his list, meeting regularly and working for change.

In August, the position of local Republican Party chairman opened up in our small suburb. My neighbor ran and was elected. In the span of several months, he went from having never been involved in politics to being a tea party coordinator and a Republican city chairman.

After my wife and I walked in the 9.12 march in Washington in September, we left on the Metro where I noticed a 60s-ish-year-old man sitting in front of us, wearing a National Rifle Association hat. So I asked if he was in the march.

Yes, he said — came up from Tennessee and had never done anything like that before but felt like he needed to get involved.

Two senior ladies were sitting in front of him; I asked if they had been at the march. Yes, both were from Indiana, and they, too, had never been politically involved. But it was time to stand up and be counted.

The Dallas-area think tank I’m associated with, the Institute for Policy Innovation, sponsored a Policy Boot Camp for the Dallas tea party in October. We had no idea how many people would show up on a Saturday morning for a three-hour policy briefing on taxes, health care and the legislative process.

Well, 400 people attended. When the theater told us we had to leave, after going over by an hour, several people were still in line to ask questions. We’re scheduled to do the next one March 6.

The tea parties are rapidly becoming a driving force in American conservatism. They rallied to the conservative economic message of Scott Brown as he was campaigning for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, even though he’s a self-professed social moderate. But they’ve also backed Marco Rubio, a Senate candidate in Florida, the race’s principled conservative, over the moderate Republican Charlie Crist, who is now trailing badly in the polls.

Tea party support makes a difference — and perhaps in some cases makes the difference — completely upending conventional political wisdom.

While tea partiers favor Republicans over Democrats, it’s more accurate to say they favor conservatives (and libertarians), regardless of party. And while they have been very critical of Democrats who vote for liberal policies, they can be even more critical of Republicans who campaign as conservatives and then vote like liberals.

Is the tea party movement a flash in the pan? Too soon to tell. But as long as we have an administration and Congress that continue to rack up massive spending, propose numerous tax increases and trillion-dollar health care bills, and ignore the constitutional limits placed on the federal government, there will be plenty of fuel to keep the tea party fire roaring.

Merrill Matthews is a resident scholar with the Institute for Policy Innovation and executive director of the Council for Affordable Health Insurance.

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