Toasting the Tea Party With a Beer

Here’s wishing a happy fifth anniversary to the “Tea Party,” even if we’re not quite convinced of the date.
This whole “Tea Party” phenomenon has never been defined to our satisfaction, much less given a precise time of birth, yet activists associated with the movement and their antagonists in the media both marked Thursday as an anniversary because it came five years to the day after CNBC reporter Rick Santelli delivered a stirring on-air rant against the “stimulus package” and the rest of budget-busting spending that was going on in the heady early days of the Obama administration and his Democrat-dominated Congress. So far as we can tell the “Tea Party” stands steadfast against debilitating public debt, even more steadfastly against attempts to eliminate it with higher taxes, and holds an instinctive suspicion of big government even when it is on solid fiscal footing, which is a perfectly sensible philosophy that pre-dates the invention of the on-air ran by several centuries and has been an essential component of America’s politics since before the founding of the republic, but we suppose Thursday seemed as good a time any to take stock of the movement.
That such unfriendly media as The New York Times felt obliged to mark the more-or-less made-up anniversary with grudgingly respectful coverage indicates that the “Tea Party” packs a powerful political punch. The movement was responsible for the Republicans taking control of the House of Representatives in 2010 and holding it ever since, which has resulted in somewhat smaller deficits and thwarted further “stimulus packages” as well countless other attempts at Democratic mischief on issues ranging from gun control to immigration. Such modest accomplishments have not satisfied the “Tea Party” faithful, who are currently working to purge the party of House Speaker John Boehner and any other insufficiently rock-ribbed Republicans, but judging by much of the anniversary coverage they seem to have at least succeeded in forcing the party far enough to the right to infuriate the left. As moderate and weak as Boehner often is, and no matter how preferable a more conservative and confrontational leader might be, the “Tea Party” should take some solace in the certainty of how very much worse a Speaker Nancy Pelosi would have been. Boehner would have been worse without “Tea Party” pressure, too, and we happily predict it will continue to pull the party in a properly conservative direction.
It’s an unusually good wind that blows no ill, however, and for all its positive effects on America’s politics the “Tea Party” has caused occasional problems for conservatism. In the 2012 election the “Tea Party” was helpful in retaining the House majority and bolstering the totals of several Senate candidates, but also cost the party some winnable seats by choosing not-ready-for-prime-time candidates in Delaware and Connecticut and Nevada and Missouri and assorted House districts, and we suspect they were among the missing McCain voters who cost Mitt Romney a chance to defeat Barack Obama and thus make all things possible. The “Tea Party” infused the Republicans with a much needed spirit of amateurism in its very best sense of doing something for the love of it and not for financial gain, which of course is how a democracy is best achieved, but too often its newly-enthused candidates were simply amateurish in the worst sense of the word. The “Tea Party’s” aversion to professionals is understandable, even laudable, but as it purges the ranks it would do well to remember that a certain amount of professionalism will be needed against such a formidable pro outfit as the Democrats. A characteristically high-minded notion of the “Tea Party” that it’s better to lose to a radical leftist than vote for a less-than-pure conservative needs to be re-thought, too, as it is likely to result in a few more radical leftists surviving the upcoming mid-term elections that would have been otherwise necessary.
Also, the “Tea Party” is yet another one of those good ideas that have suffered bad marketing. That “Tea Party” moniker was always a bad choice, as the reference to the Revolutionary Era has little appeal to a younger generation that was taught the Howard Zinn version of history and only knows the Founding Fathers as a bunch of slave-holding 1-percenters in powdered wigs, and it also provided fodder for the late night comedians to make smutty “tea bagger” jokes and portray the movement as a bunch of crazy old white men in tri-corner hats. The brave defiance of the Boston Tea Party should remain an inspiration to any freedom-loving Americans, and the contemporary “Tea Party” isn’t nearly so white as the environmental movement or feminism or most another liberal cause, even if whiteness were an inherent flaw in a political philosophy, and the late night comics can’t possibly explain in their monologues why a $17 trillion dollar debt isn’t a looming catastrophe, but that hasn’t stopped the critics from making the term a pejorative to much of the population. Freedom is always a hard sell when the opposition is offering free stuff, and the “Tea Party” has often been clumsy in making the pitch.
On the whole, however, we think the “Tea Party” has had a salutary effect on America and is likely to do even more good between now and November’s voting. The movement has stopped the Democrats from doing some very stupid things, pulled the Republicans kicking and screaming in the right direction, and perhaps even learned some of the lessons that their more weak-willed but wised-up intra-party opponents mastered long ago. We also hope those less steadfast sorts of Republicans have learned that the Tea Party’s principles of fiscal sanity, limited government, and individual liberty must prevail before or after the looming disaster. If it doesn’t, the alternative is unthinkable.

— Bud Norman