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The Tea Party: What’s Its Role?

The Tea Party movement is one of the most positive developments in American politics in a long time. Entirely grass-roots, it is loosely (if at all) organized, consists largely of people who are new to political activism, and favors a return to fiscal sanity and constitutional principles. What’s not to like? Perhaps this: some Tea Party activists may put too much emphasis on amateur status.
This is a corollary of a “throw the bums out” mentality. There are two problems with this time-honored slogan. The first is that they aren’t all bums. Some activists are too prone to lump Republicans and Democrats together, condemn all incumbents, and ignore the critically important differences between the parties. The fact is that most Republicans in Congress, and possibly a few Democrats, are fiscal conservatives. They aren’t bums, they are just outnumbered. They need to be reinforced, not thrown out.
The second problem with a “throw the bums out” mentality is that it takes a good candidate to defeat an incumbent, even an incumbent bum. And, while there are exceptions to nearly every rule, good candidates, at the level we are talking about, are generally not beginners.
We can illustrate the point by reference to two people who are prominent in the Tea Party movement: Sharron Angle and Michele Bachmann. Angle, the Tea Party candidate, won the Republican nomination for the Nevada Senate seat now held by Harry Reid, in a huge upset. But she has now come under heavy attack and trails Reid in the polls, despite Reid’s unpopularity.
It seems that what attracted Nevada primary voters to Angle was, in large part, her outsider, amateur status. But beginners by definition are not battle-tested, and a Senate campaign is a tough place to cut one’s political teeth. Angle is not a complete newcomer, of course; she served in Nevada’s State Assembly from 1999 to 2005. But she had been out of public life for five years before the current campaign, and had never faced anything like the scrutiny that goes with a Senate race.
It was Scott Brown’s stunning victory in Massachusetts that convinced many of the Tea Party movement’s potency, and perhaps of the proposition that unknown candidates can vault effortlessly to high office. But Brown was no amateur; he served in Massachusetts’ House of Representatives from 1998-2004 and in the state’s Senate from then until 2010. And he proved to be a politician of remarkable skill. He was also fortunate in his opponent, Martha Coakley, who was, with all due respect, an appallingly inept candidate–something we conservatives cannot always count on.
Michele Bachmann has just founded an official Tea Party caucus in Congress, and is a favorite of the movement. It is instructive to contrast her with Sharron Angle. Michele was, of course, a beginner at one time. But that was some years ago. We once quoted George Will’s account of how she got her start in politics. Bachmann was a tax lawyer and former liberal who became disenchanted with the Republican who represented her state Senate district:

The state senator from her district in suburban Minneapolis-St. Paul had been in office for 17 years, had stopped being pro-life and started supporting tax increases, so that morning Michele Bachmann had skipped washing her hair, put on jeans and a tattered sweatshirt and went to the local Republican nominating caucus to ask the incumbent a few pointed questions. There, on the spur of the moment, some similarly disgruntled conservatives suggested that she unseat him. After she made a five-minute speech “on freedom,” the caucus emphatically endorsed her, and she handily won the subsequent primary.

Bachmann was a seasoned campaigner by the time she ran for the U.S. House.
My point is that it is fine to be both an outsider and a beginner, but since when did we conservatives think it’s a good idea to start at the top? The reality is that it takes a strong, competent candidate, and generally an experienced one, to beat an incumbent Democrat. So Tea Party activists and other conservatives should by all means encourage new entrants into the political fray, but at an appropriate level. The idea that anyone who has been engaged in politics for a while is tainted is a snare and a delusion. In federal races, conservative activists should support strong candidates who have a good chance to win, and that generally, although not always, means candidates who are not novices. We should support, as William Buckley used to put it, the most conservative viable candidate.
I hope that Sharron Angle turns out to be a viable candidate. Going forward, I also hope that activists associated with the Tea Party movement get behind established, experienced Republicans when they are good conservatives and have the best chance to win. Losing candidates don’t get to vote in Washington.

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