Monday, January 4, 2010

In a recent Rasmussen survey, respondents were asked to assume that the Tea Party was a new political party.

Then a generic ballot question was posed:

“When thinking about the next election for Congress, would you vote for the Republican candidate from your district, the Democratic candidate from your district, or the Tea Party candidate from your district?”

The hypothetical Tea Party candidate garnered 23 percent of the vote, behind the Democrat at 36 percent and ahead of the Republican at 18 percent. Among independent voters - those who don’t affiliate themselves with any party - the Tea Partiers actually came out on top with 33 percent of the vote. These results naturally raise the question, “Should the Tea Party organizers capitalize upon this popular support and make the Tea Party a full-fledged political party?”

The Tea Party movement began as a simple and passionate protest against bigger government and higher taxes. The Tea Partiers promote the same basic principles of liberty that motivated the protests against the oppressively high taxes imposed on the American colonies by the English government two and half centuries ago, principles that soon thereafter were forged into our Constitution. As such, the ideas that Tea Partiers seem to have revived are intrinsically pure and unpolluted.

Politics, however, is anything but pure and unpolluted. Principles get commingled with greed and the lust for power, as we have seen in the Senate’s recent vote on what has become an opaquely complex and economically unsustainable health care bill larded with vote-buying special deals. It contradicts much of what the founders and framers envisioned for our country. As one Pennsylvania Tea Party leader said, the health care bills coming out of the House and Senate are more about power than they are about health care. The process that produced them was partisan from the first day, made possible by substantial Democratic Party majorities in both Houses. Parties accumulate power for the simple purpose of accumulating power, Democrats and Republicans alike. This is why the Tea Party movement matters, but more importantly, it is why the Tea Party movement should never organize itself as a political party.

When Tea Partiers oppose or support an elected official or a candidate for public office, they should do so based upon whether the candidate really grasps foundational principles like a limited government that is of, by, and for the people. The tea partiers understand that Congress works for “we the people” and that we don’t work for Congress. The current administration’s overreaches, combined with their party’s congressional majorities, gave birth to a grassroots reaction and a revival of 18th-century ideals: old-fashioned town hall meetings and rallies that were engendered by a hearty dissatisfaction with a progressive deviation from our Founders’ intentions; things like individual liberty, personal responsibility, limited government, strong national defense, lower taxes, and rule-of-law.

Tea Partiers should maintain the purity of their cause by not becoming a formal political party. As long as they operate in the sphere of ideas and principles, they can continue to call out politicians who deviate from what the framers of the Constitution intended, and they can be effective in keeping Washington honest - but if they were ever to take to heart recent polls like the Rasmussen one that suggests that the Tea Party is now more popular than either of the political parties, they would in fact be misinterpreting what the poll really measures: disaffection with the existing political parties and their political practices, and thus a preference, a longing even, for a return to constitutional principles.

Tea Partiers need to be looking out for America, which means not relying on the human nature of political leaders, whether Republicans or Democrats, but on the principles of liberty, the rule of law and transparency in government. Once they broach the line between constitutional ideas and the pursuit of political power for power’s sake, they will lose the very support that Rasmussen measures. This doesn’t preclude Tea Partiers from getting involved in individual races on either side of the aisle, even including endorsing certain candidates, but organizing as a party would eventually be counterproductive to their initial intent of giving the government back to the people.

The purity of the Tea Party movement is what makes it so effective - its grassroots groups that have self-organized in the name of returning the United States to the principles of limited government and fiscal responsibility, ideas that Congress has clearly cast aside in an age when government grows bigger by the day and elected officials uncontrollably spend taxpayer dollars in a manner that makes European socialists look like fiscal conservatives by comparison.

The Tea Party movement has the potential to control the vital nonpartisan middle of the American political spectrum - the part that determines elections. And between elections it will shout to Congress, “Don’t tread on me.”

Colin Hanna is president of Let Freedom Ring.

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