March 18, 2010

By Joe Rothstein

Since the Tea Party is a hot number these days I thought you might like to know what the man behind the movement is thinking. Here are my notes from his speech at the National Press Club this week.

The man is Dick Armey, one time top lieutenant to Newt Gingrich when Republicans took over the U.S. House in 1994 and now the head of Freedom Works, a privately-funded D.C.-based organization effectively calling the shots for Tea Party activities. Here’s what he said at the Press Club:

The movement is the fifth wave of modern grassroots conservatism. The first wave was the Goldwater movement of the 1960s. Then came the Reagan election. Next it was Ross Perot. The Contract for America wave of 1994 was the fourth. Now we’re in the fifth, with each wave getting bigger.

The Tea Party isn’t a political party. Third parties don’t do well in the U.S. The movement will support Republicans because “right now, pathetic as it is, Republicans are the best we’ve got.”

But the movement won’t let a “soft on Constitution Republican” get the presidential nomination in 2012, and is working the weed them out in congressional primaries this year.

Many Tea Party supporters are “readers of the Federalist Papers” who admire the Founding Fathers as divinely inspired “geniuses” who took every word in the Constitution seriously. They fear that President Obama and congressional Democrats “do not cherish America the way we do.”

Tea Party supporters just want to be left alone by government, and only get involved when they are concerned. Fourth wave Republicans “went bad” and “broke everyone’s hearts.” But this wave will endure because of the organizing and fund-raising power of the Internet.

Now, let’s analyze some of Armey’s points:

The first thing you realize, listening to Armey (and which also was evident at the recent Tea Party convention in Nashville and the Conservative Political Action Committee convention in Washington, D.C.) is that these folks are not happy with the Republican Party or with many Republicans now in office.

Candidates even further right than those now in Congress are running against Republicans in Utah, New Hampshire, Delaware, Florida and in key races in many other states. We haven’t seen an ideological split like this in the Republican Party since the Goldwater era. And 1964 produced one of the great election debacles for the GOP in the 20th century.

If Armey and friends succeed in knocking off reliable conservative Republicans like Senator Robert Bennett in Utah, or more moderate Republican Senate candidates Crist in Florida and Castle in Delaware, will independent voters march with them to the far right? Nothing in recent political history suggests they will.

Armey believes this “fifth wave” is bigger than his first four. But what’s it built on? Anger alone? During his hour-long address and Q & A Armey never once mentioned the 20 or so million people currently out of work, or the millions losing their homes to bankruptcy, or, for that matter, any alternative solution to the nation’s health problems, or Iran, Afghanistan, nuclear proliferation or any foreign policy issue.

Go to Freedom Works’ web site, click on “issues” and you’ll see an agenda that almost exactly mirrors the one Republicans had when they owned the White House and controlled Congress: lower taxes, less regulation, private accounts for Social Security, “market-driven” answers to energy, environment and trade issues.

Didn’t we just come through an intense period of tax and regulation cutting and unfettered free trade? As Sarah Palin might say, how’s that laissez-fairey thing working out for ya?’ This is a program that’s going to get everyone’s political juices flowing in 2010?

And about those “waves.” I seem to recall a pretty big wave that elected Barack Obama and the Democrats in 2008. That wave wasn’t generated by candidates promising lower taxes and less regulation. On the contrary, people seemed to cast votes of hope for more effective government that addressed the country’s serious, growing and untended problems.

One more thing: Armey said in his speech that his movement’s supporters were “short on patience with smart alecs who think they know better than the people.” Meaning, of course, the “smart alecs” now in Congress. But if Armey were to re-read the Federalist Papers, which he holds up as bedrock truth, he’d notice that they argue for exactly the kind of government we now have—one where people elect representatives with proxies to manage the government in their name.

The founding fathers would have been horrified at the prospect of every American voting directly on every piece of legislation.

I’ve met a lot of Tea Party activists at various rallies. Sure, there’s a crazy here and there, just like in other big movements. But for the most part those I’ve talked with are what Armey says they are, people genuinely concerned with how things are going and willing to give up some of their time and money for what they see as a just cause.

But are they the wave of America’s future? And is Dick Armey—a man who not long ago held in his hands as House Majority Leader the power to do great things for America, and blew it—a 21st century George Washington?

We’ll start getting answers to those questions when the results begin rolling in from Republican primaries. The more I hear, the more I’m convinced that the Tea Party movement is much more of a problem for Republicans than for Democrats. For the GOP, this wave may indeed be insurmountable.