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What the Media Miss About the Tea Party Movement

What the Media Miss About the Tea Party Movement

By John Hart - May 21, 2014

Even before Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blew out Tea-Party-conservative-by-day-cockfight-rally-goer-by-night Matt Bevin, many in the media walked down a tired, well-worn narrative path. An afternoon headline from CNN blared, “How Mitch McConnell crushed the Tea Party” well before the polls had closed. The primary result was a big “win” for the GOP establishment and a “loss” for the Tea Party. For those keeping score, it is now roughly the GOP establishment 5 (Kentucky, Texas, North Carolina, Ohio, Georgia) and the Tea Party 1 (Nebraska).

But this win-loss story line doesn’t reflect reality. The real struggle in 2014 is not between the GOP establishment and the Tea Party but within the Tea Party itself. And, more importantly, in spite of this struggle, the Tea Party continues to ascend.

Primary campaigns in states like Kentucky are merely bringing to the surface long-simmering tensions within the conservative movement. On one side is the grassroots -- the Tea Party. Alongside it is crabgrass -- the Tea Party establishment’s sometimes invasive tactics, bad judgment (i.e. the government shutdown) and even worse candidate vetting that draw nutrients away from the grassroots.

And what is the Tea Party establishment exactly? Like with the Republican Revolution of 1994, it’s the part of the reform movement that went native after acquiring real political power. Today, it’s the gilded conservative neighborhood of “This Town,” Mark Leibovich’s book about D.C.’s culture of self-love. It’s the catered lunch that never adjourns; the cabal, the mutual-admiration society of master strategists who have never successfully limited government but know how.

In primary campaigns, it’s the part of the Tea Party that has the hubris to suggest candidates like Bevin are representative of an organic uprising because it says so, regardless of what the real grassroots may think.

Yet, Kentucky shows how the real grassroots can overcome the Tea Party establishment’s brand-damaging fiascos that taint challengers everywhere.

First, Kentucky is a huge win for the Tea Party because Bevin’s defeat will greatly increase the odds that the general election race will be a referendum on Tea Party principles rather than animal cruelty. (In a campaign low point, Bevin attended a cockfight rally and later fumbled his explanation about his attendance.)

Second, the transformation of McConnell’s campaign from 2008 to 2014 shows the overwhelming persuasive and redemptive power of the Tea Party. In 2008, the Senate minority leader ran a series of ads touting his success at bringing home the bacon. In 2014, his campaign had lost that aroma. McConnell himself helped end earmarks in 2010 and recently said no to Majority Leader Harry Reid’s call to restore the disgraced practice. McConnell’s evolving message shows how the real Tea Party can co-opt and win over the GOP establishment when it sticks to its principles.

In fact, thanks to the Tea Party, the old-style “bring home the bacon” campaigns have largely been wiped off the electoral map. Even Democrats have joined the Tea Party’s anti-pork campaign. Mark Udall, Claire McCaskill and Elizabeth Warren have all vocally opposed earmarks, a rare challenge to Reid’s rigid party discipline.

The Tea Party’s influence, of course, extends well beyond earmarks. In race after race, candidates are embracing its message of less government, less spending, less regulation and more freedom, particularly on Obamacare.

Even President Obama has bowed to the Tea Party on the Affordable Care Act. No one has done more to repeal, replace and delay the law than the president himself. He has changed the law more than a dozen times in a blatant attempt to save the political lives of vulnerable Democrats who have been caught in the open by the wonderfully American Tea Party guerrilla uprising.

Across the country, the Tea Party is leading a great and historic corrective. It is pulling both parties not to the right but to the middle -- to a place of fiscal sanity and sustainability. The Tea Party is slowly but surely reversing an 80-year trend in which a center-left governing coalition in Washington has imposed its will on a center-right country. With the Tea Party’s help, the country is pushing back and saying “enough” to D.C.’s decadence that has given us a $17 trillion debt, an economy with zero wage growth since 1989 and safety net programs that are on the verge of collapse.

The status quo apologists are so eager to belittle the Tea Party because they know its appeal is mainstream. Ronald Reagan (echoing Richard Nixon) called it the silent majority. Tom Coburn called it the rumble. But our founders called it America. The real Tea Party is just another name for our national aversion to centralized power, a core conviction that inspired our founders and is rooted in a deep understanding of history and human nature.

In 2014, the win-loss stories will continue but the real “narrative” looks less like a CNN headline and more like Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” -- a timeless critique of revolutionary excess.

For the Tea Party, it is the best and worst of times. It is an age of opportunity, and an age of opportunism; a season of principle, and a season of pandering. It is a revival of self-government, and a revival of self-immolation. It is the era of Ben Sasse. It is the era of Matt Bevin. It is a celebration of the American Revolution’s optimism. It is a celebration of the French Revolution’s nihilism.

But in Kentucky and across America, the real Tea Party is alive and well, and far more sophisticated and successful than sometimes-flawed Tea Party establishment candidates suggest. 

John Hart is Sen. Tom Coburn's communications director and co-author of his two books.

John Hart

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