09.15.10

The Unstoppable Tea Party

Tuesday’s victories just prove that the movement has genuine, grassroots power, says Doug Schoen—and Obama better get used to dealing with them. The third part in his debate with Will Bunch on the Tea Party’s power.

Tuesday’s victories just prove that the movement has genuine, grassroots power, says Doug Schoen, author Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement Is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System. The third part in his debate with Will Bunch on the Tea Party’s power.

To read Doug Schoen and Will Bunch’s earlier exchanges, please read here and here.

The results from yesterday’s primary compellingly demonstrate the power of the Tea Party movement. The victory of Christine O’Donnell in the Delaware Republican primary against Mike Castle shows clearly and unabashedly how strong the Tea Party movement is.

I completely understand that O’Donnell is a weakened and fluid candidate. Already observers such as Karl Rove have indicated that she is not worthy of Republican support.

But her very weakness as a candidate underscores the legitimate and enduring power of the Tea Party movement.

If there was not a strong, grassroots, independent initiative—even in a moderate state like Delaware—Christine O’Donnell would have had no chance.

Daily Beast contributors on the primary resultsThe fact that she won demonstrates enduringly the power, independence, and strong grassroots nature of the Tea Party movement.

Similarly, in New York, the entire Republican establishment endorsed former Congressman Rick Lazio in his campaign for the Republican nomination for governor. His opponent in the primary was an unsophisticated first-time candidate named Carl Paladino, an upstate developer. Paladino made a number of gaffes—both before announcing his candidacy and after—and demonstrated what at the very least can be described as an insensitivity to political correctness. Yet he too defeated Rick Lazio—the establishment choice—by a margin of over 20 points.

While every Tea Party victory has so far been considered anomalous, the fact of the matter is that Tea Party candidates stand a good chance of being elected to the Senate in states like Florida, Utah, Nevada, Kentucky, Alaska, and Colorado.

President Obama was elected in 2008 with a substantial share of the Tea Party vote, and Bill Clinton was able to win in 1996 with a substantial share of the 1992 Perot vote.

Indeed, the bottom line is that if the Republican Party is to win control of Congress—and that is certainly still an if—it will be because of the Tea Party movement.

The Tea Party movement has generated a level of enthusiasm in the electorate that has heretofore not been evident and is driving activism on the Republican side of the aisle, and extending to independents and moderate to conservative Democrats.

By trying to brand the Tea Party movement as Astroturf or a tool of other forces—Bunch runs the risk of making the same mistake that Democratic leaders such as President Obama and Nancy Pelosi have made—not recognizing the authentic nature of the genuine, spontaneous grassroots phenomenon representing an outpouring of anger calling for smaller government, less spending, and a return to our core principles.

In many ways, the Tea Party movement is reminiscent of that which was seen in 1992 when Ross Perot emerged. Perot provided a focal point in the pre-Internet age for organizing.

But like the Tea Parties this year, the Perot movement demonstrated that there is a core of American people—indeed as many as 25 percent—who are angry and indeed activated by a grassroots, fiscally conservative movement.

The mistake the left makes more generally is trying to discredit movements like the Tea Party rather than trying to work with them. President Obama was elected in 2008 with a substantial share of the Tea Party vote, and Bill Clinton was able to win in 1996 with a substantial share of the 1992 Perot vote.

It is simply tactically wrong, and politically misguided for those on the left to try to demonize, marginalize, and minimize the Tea Party movement. Instead, what the left needs to do is to make an argument, which is compelling, rational, and reasonable—that many Democrats have been at least as fiscally conservative as the Republicans.

Many Democrats deserve support for their commitment to balanced budgets, reducing spending, and reining in the size of government.

The Obama administration has made a fundamental mistake in not choosing this course of action.

But after the election, when it’s almost certain there will be substantial gains if not a complete takeover for the Republicans in both houses of Congress, the Obama administration will have to come to terms with the most potent force in American politics today, the Tea Party movement.

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Douglas Schoen is a political strategist and author of the upcoming book Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System to be published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins on September 14. Schoen has worked on numerous campaigns, including those of Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Michael Bloomberg, Evan Bayh, Tony Blair, and Ed Koch.