Politics

01.16.12

At South Carolina Convention, Tea Party Struggles With Electability

With no consensus standard-bearer, the rebel Republicans’ South Carolina convention reflected the chaos of political passions confronted with the reality of electability.

Leave it to the South Carolina Tea Party to throw a convention so rambunctious that several attendees stomp out in a huff on opening day.

The fireworks went off around midafternoon Sunday, when speaker Michael George, father of the Lean Six Sigma theory of managerial efficiency, took to the podium with his apocalyptically titled address: “The Tea Party at the Crossroads: Join or Die!” Far from a rallying cry in support of the movement, George was issuing a warning to Tea Partiers that the time has come to stop dithering and line up behind the only remaining candidate who can defeat President Obama: Newt Gingrich. “If you don’t support Newt, it’s a vote for Romney!” he cautioned, having made clear what a disaster that would be. “It’s time to join or die. Of course, if you decide to die, that’s your business.”

Such bossypants pronouncements were unlikely to go over well with the fiercely independent Tea Partiers under any circumstances, but they were especially out of place at a gathering where candidate advocacy was understood to be a no-no. And let’s just say that George didn’t do himself any favors when it came to presentation: The centerpiece of his speech was a slide featuring a man wielding a club, surrounded by the bloody corpses of a few dozen bludgeoned seals. If only these seals had joined together, he told the crowd, they could have taken the guy. For any dim enough not to follow his point, he smugly pointed out that, unless the attendees put aside their personal preferences to rally around Newt, they would meet a similar end.

Several annoyed listeners headed for the door. Others kept their seats but started shouting their disapproval. One ticked-off gal captured the sentiment in the room when she roared, “Tea Party members will not let anyone tell us who to vote for!”

Faced with such fury, poor George—who, he eventually revealed, is the money behind Strong America Now, the pro-Newt super PAC—started backpedaling as fast as he could. (Yes. Yes. Newt Gingrich’s “list of crimes is huge!” But “we’ve got to get a presidential nominee who can beat Obama!”) Even so, it took a couple of quick-thinking audience members to stand up and preach the soothing gospel of ABO (i.e., Anyone But Obama) before order could be restored.

Many, many attendees bemoaned what a cruel disappointment Rick Perry’s campaign has been.

On one level, you can’t fault George for blundering into this hornet’s nest. Less than a week out from South Carolina’s GOP primary, the state’s Tea Party members are more torn than ever about whom to support. Members are confused and frustrated, and the agony of indecision has, broadly, put a muzzle on the ordinarily loud-and-proud splinter movement. “They can’t figure out who they want,” says South Carolina Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a Tea Party favorite.

The  uncertainty was on colorful display at the Springmaid Resort conference center, where the convention is being held. Some folks sported giant oval “Newt 2012” stickers. Others wore navy-blue “Rick Santorum” rectangles. The vast majority were without ornamentation, but were happy to share their stories of having been whipsawed from one candidate to the next this cycle. Some remained depressed about Michele Bachmann’s inability to catch fire. Some were in mourning over the departure of Herman Cain. (“Obama set him up!” one New York transplant insisted vehemently.) And many, many attendees bemoaned what a cruel disappointment Rick Perry’s campaign has been.

“Perry was our guy, but the debates just killed him!” Mulvaney sighed to me after his own speech. The congressman is still backing Perry—and he insists that Perry is the guy that most Tea Party members love deep down in their hearts. “But few are supporting him,” admits the congressman, “because of concerns that Rick can’t beat Obama.”

Not that electability has been Perry’s only issue. Myrtle Beach Tea Party members Ann and Kenny Prince say they have lots of friends who were really excited about the Texas governor, but the Princes found him too soft on immigration. Nor can they get excited about Gingrich, despite the Myrtle Beach chapter’s decision to endorse him. Not that the endorsement means much, Kenny tells me. The group took four or five votes before narrowly settling on Gingrich. “On the last vote you either voted for Newt or you voted ‘no,’” explains Kenny. “And even then he barely won.”

For their part, the Princes favor Santorum--though they’ve been told he doesn’t have a shot at winning against Obama.

Such is the chaos that ensues when a movement that is driven by passion starts grappling with the imperative of electability. Like most GOP voters this time around, the Tea Partiers’ overriding goal is to oust Obama. But with no superstar choice to line up behind—and with the party’s frontrunner widely regarded as a wishy-washy flip-flopper with no core values—the search for a standard bearer has been dispiriting to say the least.

Faced with such a pickle, multiple attendees told me they had been praying overtime for God to help them make the right choice.

But thus far, it seems, the Almighty is still pondering the options as well.