The Tea Party Needs to Get Its Act Together

“You’ve got to think about big things while you’re doing small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction.”  — Alvin Toffler

Dr. Charles Kesler

Dr. Charles Kesler

I would like to share an excerpt from a lengthy article I read recently. It was in the January 2014 issue of Hillsdale College’s Imprimis magazine. The author, Charles R. Kesler, is a Distinguished Professor of Government (at Claremont McKenna College) and editor of, among other things, the Claremont Review of Books and the Signet Classic edition of The Federalist Papers (which I own).

The piece in question was actually adapted from a speech Kesler delivered at Hillsdale College last year. I confess, I don’t usually read Imprimis, though I probably should. However, this article’s title caught my eye: “The Tea Party, Conservatism, and the Constitution”. Not particularly clever, but I found it intriguing, because lately I have been doing a little ruminating on the actions of the Tea Party and certain of its luminaries. I still support the Tea Party ideals, of course, and I admire and generally appreciate their steadfastness to those ideals. But, I’m not always sure about the tactics they take. I find myself rooting for them, but then I hear a non-Tea Party (but not anti-TP) person that I greatly respect — e.g., Charles Krauthammer or Newt Gingrich — explain, either before or afterward, why such a tactic was ineffective at best, perhaps harmful to the cause at worst. So, I thought Kesler might have something to say about that.

Kesler’s focus, though, is a bit different. The Tea Party has established itself as the nemesis of Obama and Obamacare. Its goal is to return America to a more limited, more constitutional form of government, with less taxes, less regulation, and more freedom. But, Kesler thinks that the Tea Party’s success has been, shall we say, mixed at best.

“If I had to judge its performance so far, I would say that it has been courageous and right in its diagnosis of the problems facing American politics, but somewhat off in its prescriptions.”

So, what does he suggest?

“What the Tea Party needs now is a strategy — something it has so far conspicuously lacked — to allow it to achieve its worthy ends. Thinking through a strategy will help clarify those ends: What is it, exactly, that the Tea Party means by limited government? Limited to what? And limited by what? Clearly the Tea Party’s form of conservatism points back to the Constitution as the basis for restoring American government. But how practically to move in that direction?”

This is what must be worked out, in order to focus the means toward the desired ends. Kesler commends the Tea Party for concluding that the battles over Obamacare do not reveal two conflicting interpretations of the same Constitution so much as two different Constitutions: the original Constitution of 1787 vs. a “living”, progressively changing document. Recognizing this is crucial to the fight. The Tea Party and the President knew the stakes, but the GOP leaders? Not so much.

Before proceeding to formulate a strategy, though, it is worthwhile to acknowledge the Tea Party’s “paradoxical character” and its actions up to this point:

“It is a populist movement to defend the Constitution, but the Constitution is meant, among other things, to limit populism in our politics — to channel, moderate, and refine popular passion through constitutional forms, such as elections, officeholding, and the rule of law. The point was to ensure, as The Federalist put it, that the reason, not the passion, of the public would control and regulate the government. So it was incumbent on the Tea Party to try to keep its populist means in line with its constitutional ends. And it is in this respect that the Tea Party has sometimes fallen short.

Last fall, the Tea Party seized upon the latest Continuing Resolution to try to bring down Obamacare. Granted, Continuing Resolutions, the multi-thousand page omnibus spending bills that pass for appropriations bills these days, are abdications of Congress’s own budget process and derelictions of its constitutional duty to protect the public purse. Yet bad things can sometimes be used for good purposes. But mainstream Republican leaders warned that the Tea Party senators never had a realistic plan to obtain the votes to defund Obamacare in the Senate, or beyond that to overcome Obama’s veto pen. President Obama needed to fund the government, but he felt, rightly it turned out, that he could hold out longer than the GOP could. The architects of the government shutdown could never answer the question of how victory might be achieved.

Apparently their hope was that an outraged American public — fresh from voting in 2012 to re-elect Obama and to increase the Democratic majority in the Senate by two seats — would rise up and put such pressure on recalcitrant Democrats that they would defund the program that their party had been longing for since Franklin Roosevelt…. The implicit argument was that by going over the heads of party leaders and constitutional officeholders to appeal directly to the people, the Tea Party could generate its own mandate to trump the mandate just awarded in the election.

TeaParty.org emblem…So as the Tea Party’s unreasonable hopes faded, it had to settle for less and less: delaying the individual mandate rather than defunding it; verifying the subsidies of policyholders in the insurance exchanges; abolishing the medical devices tax; delaying the medical devices tax; and so on. The Tea Party leaders were pushed back and back and were forced to ask for less and less, until they ended up with virtually nothing.

To summarize, the Tea Party has been right about the threat posed to the fabric of constitutional government by Obamacare and by other brazen assaults on the Constitution, such as President Obama’s asserted prerogatives to choose which laws to enforce and to make recess appointments when there was no recess. But the establishment Republicans were right about the outcome of the effort to defund Obamacare by tying it to the Continuing Resolution….

The Tea Party could do itself and the country a great service by working out what a return to constitutional government might really mean, and thus the strategy and tactics appropriate to that. What is needed is less populism and more political thinking on its part, or on the part of its trusted advisors. Political thinking and constitutional thinking are not opposed, of course, any more than putting together a political majority and defending the Constitution are opposed. Indeed, these two great duties, properly understood, are implicit in each other. It’s doubtful that the Republican party can succeed without doing both.

After a century of Progressive mining and sapping of the Constitution, the great document we count on to defend us now needs our defense, and the form of government issuing from the Constitution is itself in need of restoration and renewal.”

Is Kesler right about this? Are our Constitution and the freedoms it declares now at risk? Is the Tea Party on the right track but in desperate need of some focused (re-)strategizing? Maybe a TP v2.0? Can the GOP still save the Constitution and this nation?

I vote “Absolutely, yes” on all of the above. But, what should that strategy be? I’d love to hear what you think….

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