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Testing the Tea Party in the struggle for the soul of the GOP

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“From our founding, the Tea Party represents the voice of the true owners of the United States: WE THE PEOPLE.” These words, published on the Tea Party’s “About us” webpage, seem almost ironic now that the 2012 election results have been examined and rehashed. The true owners are clearly transforming, and the Tea Party should do the same if it is to survive in Washington.

The reason is quite simple: America is essentially a country of moderate Democrats and Republicans where change happens quickly. The atmosphere of panic surrounding the economy and Obama’s healthcare reform that gave space to the grassroots movement back in 2010 has faded – and history is repeating itself. When Democrats were considered too liberal back in the 1980’s, they lost three presidential elections in a row. Only when Bill Clinton came into the spotlight with a more moderate platform, did things turn around for the Democratic Party. Now Republicans find themselves in a similar position – and the Tea Party, with its spitfire rhetoric, is indeed a liability.

The battle lines within the Republican Party were clear long before the election, but the November 6th defeats provided an open firing range. GOP leaders immediately began blaming the Tea Party for having lost the Senate. Glaring evidence included the defeats of Missouri’s Todd Akin and Indiana’s Richard Mourdock due to their now infamous comments on rape and pregnancy. In the House, Minnesota’s Michelle Bachmann, who briefly led in national GOP presidential primary polls and who is the head of the Tea Party Caucus, barely managed to win. While other Tea Party candidates who were seen as too extreme lost out completely.

On the other hand, Tea Partiers blame the old Republican guard for endorsing a too-moderate Mitt Romney and, thus, for losing the presidency. Jenny Beth Martin, the co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, emailed reporters as soon as Romney’s loss had become clear blaming the defeat on a “weak moderate candidate, hand-picked by the Beltway elites and country-club establishment wing of the Republican Party.”

Statements like this represent the many punches Tea Partiers have swung at the GOP establishment in the days following the vote, and clearly reveal the deepening divide that threatens to make the Republicans a minority party. But many members of the old guard are well aware that it was not a lack of conservatism that cost them crucial black, Hispanic and youth votes. In fact, Romney’s moderate tone, despite his loss, may be exactly what the party should continue to strive for if it is to make gains in the next elections. One thing is clear, the party has a period of reflection ahead, and it should not let the disappointments of the 2012 loss push it further into conservatism.

“The party has to continually ask ourselves, what do we represent?” Florida Republican Marco Rubio, who doesn’t have a direct connection to the Tea Party, but has been referred to as its “crowned prince” was quoted in the New York Times the day after the vote. “But we have to remain the movement on behalf of upward mobility, the party people identify with their hopes and dreams.”

While it appears from statements like this that Republicans understand where they are wrong, the simple truth is that most Americans identify their hopes and dreams with President Obama – as his personal story clearly represents upward mobility and his rhetoric has always been laced with the hopes and dreams of the American people. In fact, America chose between two moderate candidates with similar platforms in 2012, but it is Obama’s persona coupled with his high-tech and well-dispersed campaign organization that beat out Romney.

And that’s not all. Campaign strategists have been talking for years about the importance of minority votes, but extreme conservatives, like the Tea Partiers, seem naïve when it comes to demographics. While it would be unfair to say that Hispanics only care about immigration policy, it is clear that a candidate is not going to win over large numbers of Hispanics with an extreme anti-immigration stance. Here the Tea Party, and much of the Republican Party for that matter, needs to rethink its message – especially considering that Hispanics are typically socially conservative and therefore generally in line with the Republican school of thought. Among the Tea Party’s “15 non-negotiable core beliefs” are: “Illegal aliens are here illegally” and “English as our core language is required”. While the content of the phrases are factually correct, the tone is unappealing to many voters. The words “non-negotiable” are simply not fit for an ever-changing America. If the movement is to survive, it must look at the way it formulates its rhetoric and focus more on those core beliefs that most Americans would agree with such as “The national budget must be balanced.”

The same is true for Tea Party stances on the “traditional” family. The 2012 vote brought victories for marriage equality for gays and lesbians in Maine, Maryland and Washington – plus the rejection of a ban on same sex marriage in Minnesota and the win of the US’s first openly lesbian senator, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin. Although the ultra-conservative Catholic Church spent millions to avoid this, in a country where the majority of Catholics support marriage equality, Republicans (especially the Christian right) need to rethink their posture.

America has become a land where a candidate can lose the white vote, win minorities and end up in the White House. This was not the case 20 years ago. It has also become a nation where reformers (like Baldwin or Elizabeth Warren), and ultra-conservatives who portray themselves as moderates (like Ron Johnson or Scott Walker) win elections. All of this, however, is not to say that the Tea Party will not be a strong voice in Washington over the next few years. After all, it was the movement that won Republicans the House in 2010 and it nearly brought the government to a halt last year over the federal deficit. In fact, when it comes to budget and tax issues, the party may have to continue answering to the Tea Party – especially considering the Bush tax cuts are about to expire.

Plus in some instances their endorsements in campaigns can be crucial – as was the case in the win of Deb Fischer in Nebraska who was endorsed by Sarah Palin and helped by both the Tea Party and SuperPAC funding. Another example is Indiana Senator Richard Lugar whose long career was destroyed during the primaries when he chose not to court the Tea Party. Despite these strong points, some analysts predict the movement will die out by 2016, as America is changing and Tea Party membership is declining. The movement’s activities have also decreased – a problem since its visibility in its early days was clearly linked to well-staged protests and popular community events. Chapters have also begun focusing more on local rather than national issues and on pushing political candidates rather than organizing high-profile events. The Republican Party, on the other hand, must reset its tradition of moderation whether the Tea Party is on board or not. Republicans must admit that an anti-government, anti-spending and anti-compromise attitude alienates crucial voting blocks. Plus, the party needs to look at who its future leaders will be. Some are betting on Paul Ryan or Marco Rubio, who could end up giving the party a more conservative touch – though they are well-viewed socially (Ryan has been described as the perfect vice presidential candidate and Rubio is the descendent of Cuban immigrants).

As the US economy heals, and social matters begin to take the stage, the Tea Party could face irrelevance or all-out public war with the old Republican guard. This could especially be the case if Democrats choose to push heated issues such as abortion, immigration and global warming in 2014.

The results of 2012 have provided a learning experience for America. The elections proved that most Americans care about their neighbors, whether in terms of women’s reproductive rights, same-sex marriage or religious freedom. Plus, most Americans don’t mind paying taxes if the money goes to important services.  Obama’s “Forward” slogan summed this up, and when he said “We believe in a generous America, in a compassionate America, in a tolerant America,” during his victory speech, he brought everyone, including Tea Partiers, back to square one.