Looking for Tea Party leaders

Reaction to Liz Cheney’s challenge to Mike Enzi in the Wyoming Republican senatorial primary in 2014 has been interesting. Tea Party Republicans such as Sen. Rand Paul have quickly sided with Enzi, questioning Cheney’s residency in the state. Other more grassroots Tea Party leaders have at best taken a “wait-and-see” attitude.

All of this has led pundits to speculate whether or not this means that so-called Tea Partiers have mellowed because of the results of the 2012 elections. But such a judgment may be premature. Like many political movements there is a plurality in the initial group that gradually alters into factions. Libertarians, good government reformers, some members of the Christian right and the usual opportunist make up the coalition loosely known as the Tea Party. It has been from the start a diffuse movement or specifically diffuse movements.

But it has had its impact beginning with the landslide in the 2010 midterms to the continuing advance at the state level. Because of the failure of some of its candidates in Senate races in 2012 largely regarding women’s issues, the Tea Party is seen as on the decline. But the follies of Richard Murdock and Todd Akin are not necessarily solid examples for preparing the last rites for the overall movement.

However, the wide diversity and shades of opinions do expose both a weakness and a strength. At its most successful, it resembles H. Ross Perot’s brief moment in the sun in 1992. Despite a bizarre campaign which was started and restarted, Perot garnered almost 19 percent of the vote. It was the first social sign that there was discontent with the political status quo. But Perot’s reform party in 2000 selected Pat Buchanan and saw its numbers plummet to close to nothing – this is insurgent politics at its weakest.

The Tea Party has a bit of Perot, a touch of Pat Robertson, a smidgen of George Wallace and not a few Steve Forbes admirers plus Ron Paul. Economic populists will wrangle with libertarians and social conservatives. This celebrates liveliness but also betrays weakness. As with the Populist Party of the 1890s, it is a big tent group. Some, as their political needs dictate, begin to sound like old-line Republican conservatives, thus becoming – gasp – politicians.

Part of this is because it has never produced a dominant leader. Ronald Reagan, before 1980, was conceded to be the undisputed leader of the conservative wing of the GOP. That he made it to the presidency was remarkable given that ideological candidates rarely make it. Look at Robert Taft, Barry Goldwater or even Reagan himself in 1968 and 1976. Although he was electable – certainly proving so in the 1980s – party leaders were reluctant to nominate the Californian.

Reagan proved his leadership potential in 1975 when he urged conservatives not to leave the Republican Party. But no such champion has yet to emerge.

Sarah Palin certainly came close, but she lacks Reagan’s focus, although she is very good at rallying the faithful. Palin represents the lack of discipline within the movement. In this respect, the Tea Party resembled the new left in resisting the emergence of a leader.

But this is many miles away from being dead. If the GOP establishment reacts too sharply to competition in its primaries based on one set of election returns, it might make mistakes of a different sort. The Tea Party is still a work in progress.