By Felicia Cravens, Contributor, US Daily Review.
Scuttlebutt about the tea party’s role in the 2012 election has begun to take an interesting turn. The catchiest headlines trumpet tea party failure and suggest the movement’s influence is all but over. As early as October, The Week posted THIS ARTICLE charging fickleness, as supporters switched from Bachmann to Perry to Cain. A week later THIS ARTICLE by Phillip Klein suggested that a Romney win in the primary will be a blow to tea party influence.
Other articles followed, including one from Doug Mataconis charging that ideological purity tests are at fault; that tea parties vetted and rejected all viable candidates who could have challenged Mitt Romney, leaving the Republicans with a northeastern quasi-liberal backed heavily by the establishment. While there is definitely some truth to that, the conclusion that the tea party is on the way out seems very premature.
One reason for the charges of failure lies in the movement’s distribution of power. There were no top-down directives, and no national coordinating groups driving the earliest rallies. Even today there is no one group that can claim supremacy and leadership of the movement; articles crediting national groups with leadership often cite multiple sources: Tea Party Express, Freedom Works, Tea Party Patriots, and several others.
This makes tea party support difficult to pin down, especially in such a contested primary. Add to that the activities the three groups above have been engaged in recently: Tea Party Express has been on tour throughout Florida conducting rallies, Tea Party Patriots has been conducting a tele-straw poll in Florida and touring the primary and caucus states, and Freedom Works has been conducting trainings and promoting their Tea Party Debt Commission Report across the country. This is not to say any one activity is more important than any other, but rather to say that different groups have found different ways to engage in their missions.
Another reason given for the lack of influence is the whiplash-inducing switches between candidates claiming tea party support. Bachmann with her Tea Party Caucus and early Iowa Straw Poll win seemed an easy favorite out of the gate, but that ended abruptly when the Iowa Caucuses handed her a last-place finish. Cain’s bounce crash-landed amidst allegations of sexual harassment. By the time Perry got his feet under him in the debates, the damage was done, and his last-place showing in New Hampshire hastened his departure. At this point, tea party support is shared among the remaining candidates to one degree or another, based on different criteria. Paul and Gingrich each claim a large tea party supporter following, but Santorum and Romney have their supporters as well among tea party voters.
This is not indicative of fickleness, as much as it is witnessing an undirected portion of the electorate considering their dwindling options. No amount of tea party support will make a candidate campaign better, untie his tongue, or avoid press scandals. The candidates are responsible for their own choices, their own conduct.
Another factor seldom considered when heaping criticism on the tea party is the fact that the relatively young movement has many leaders whose political experience covers only a few years. For some, 2012 will mark the first time they voted in a primary for a presidential candidate. Many have not been involved in politics in any way before joining the tea party, and the sheer number of issues and candidates is a lot to master in a few short years. The problems of a bloated, grasping government did not appear overnight, and certainly will take several cycles to begin to correct. And yet, cries of “tea party failure” are leveled quite readily, in absurd expectation of miracle cures of the infomercial variety.
If tea party were run like the NRA or the AARP – an interesting notion for sure – there would likely be an endorsement based on some member survey, or on the leadership’s judgment of who best would fit the principles. But the very nature of the movement leaves individuals and groups to decide for themselves. That’s not something tea party should toss away easily in a trade for power.
Felicia Cravens walked away from her accounting degree over a decade ago to become a stay-at-home mom. Since then, she has filled her “spare time” teaching drama in an after-school program and working in conservative politics. She founded the Houston Tea Party Society in 2009, serves as a frequent media contact, and trains and equips people new to the political process, on topics such as Convention 101 and Twitter Basics. She also serves as Vice-President of the organization that planned January’s Saddle Up Texas Straw Poll. Her passion for social, media in politics has led her to launch Dialect Social Media this spring, a consulting firm for candidates, and she can be found on Facebook and Google+, and on Twitter as @somethingfishie and at LinkedIn. She is a contributor at The Texas Conservative as well as a blogger in her own right at Something Fishie.