Published: March 1, 2014
Thursday marked five years since a commentator on one of the more liberal networks, MSNBC, launched the tea party movement. Since Rick Santelli's rant from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade, decrying a president who wanted hard-working Americans to pay for "losers' mortgages," activists have changed the political landscape for better and worse.
Tea partiers have elected governors, state legislators and powerful members of Congress.
Some have tried to move the Republican Party back to its roots of low taxation and limited government. Others have created a climate of nauseating self-righteous contrarianism that crudely caricaturizes free-market principles.
A third leg of the tea party is the false reputation created by some mainstream journalists who report assumptions as fact. We've all heard that tea party activism must be rooted in racism, as it challenges America's first black president. Never mind the inconvenient fact that tea partiers elected more minorities - more blacks, Hispanics and women - than Democrats did in 2010. Seldom, if ever, has a political movement empowered so many minorities in one election. If the GOP wants to lose its reputation as the party of white men, the tea party could help.
Despite the tea party's promotion of ethnic minorities, MSNBC tried to capitalize on the "racism" narrative after a man showed up at an Arizona tea party rally with a military style gun. The network cropped the photo so viewers could not see the skin of the man in question. Turned out the gun-toting activist, ostensibly racist, was black.
When the New York Times and CBS News set out to document the illiterate buffoonery of self-professed tea party activists, their pollsters found surprising data. They learned, as reported by a Times story in 2010, that "Tea Party supporters are wealthier and more well-educated than the general public, and are no more or less afraid of falling into a lower socioeconomic class."
The tea party elected surgeon Rand Paul and articulate lawyers, such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, with post-graduate degrees from Harvard and other Ivy League schools. The movement also promoted disastrous candidates such as Dan Maes, the Colorado GOP's 2010 gubernatorial candidate.
"The Tea Party is both the Republican Party's greatest agitator and its biggest source of political energy, and that has proved difficult to square since the 2010 elections sent to Washington the first freshman class of lawmakers it inspired," said a New York Times story about the five-year anniversary. "With the midterm races this year and the 2016 presidential elections on the horizon, the biggest question for the few hundred people who traveled from all over the country to celebrate on Thursday was how to ensure that internal divisions will not consume them."
The Republican Party has seldom been in a better position to reclaim power. Democrats can razzle-dazzle the public with sophisticated candidates and glossy campaigns that put Republican marketing to shame. But some of the party's hallmark victories - most notably the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act - bolster long-held Republican arguments that say government can't provide for us all.
If Republicans snatch defeat from the jaws of victory next fall, it will be the result of division within the ranks.
Moderate, mainstream Republicans need to stop marginalizing more conservative factions of the party. Tea partiers need to stop acting as if Republicans sell their souls to the "establishment" the moment they ascend to leadership or cooperate with Democrats.
In politics, victories are won through alliances and compromise. Tea party activists, neoconservatives, paleo conservatives, social conservatives, economic conservatives, libertarians and moderates need to make their peace. If they don't, they will surrender victory. They will sacrifice common goals of limited government and individual excellence to the interests of winning intraparty disputes. The left is counting on it.