Dan Quayle: Don't let the tea party go Perot

By Dan Quayle
Sunday, April 4, 2010; B01

Like many influential causes before it, the "tea party" movement appeared on the scene uninvited by the political establishment. Democrats in the White House and in Congress recognize it for what it is -- a spontaneous and pointed response to the Obama agenda -- but some Republican leaders still aren't sure what to make of it, as tea partiers have risen on their own and stirred up trouble in GOP primaries.

Sometimes in politics it's easier to recognize foes than friends, and this may be why Democrats have been quicker to figure out the movement's potential. They know that in November's midterm elections, Republicans will gain mightily from a growing discontent with the administration, which has disappointed the independent voters who made the difference for Barack Obama in 2008.

A close look at the tea party membership will find many of those independents who went for Obama but now regret it. After sweeping into power, Democrats assumed they had redrawn the political map forever, and they took this as a mandate to remake the federal government forever. To the surprise of millions of their supporters, they plowed ahead with federal control over health care and new spending financed by a decade of trillion-dollar deficits. Along the way, they have tried to brush off the Republican congressional minority as little more than spectators to one-party rule.

But across America, millions of people decided not to be silent. Prompted only by their convictions, they united against the unjustifiable expansion of federal power. So successful is the tea party movement that there is speculation it might launch a political party. Though nearly three-quarters of tea party supporters identify themselves as Republicans, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, 40 percent of them are open to voting for a third-party candidate of their own.

The emergence of official tea party candidates would be very welcome news in the Obama White House. All at once, a powerful and energetic counterweight to the Democratic establishment would become a splinter group, destroying the unified opposition it has helped to create. A potential electoral majority on the threshold of victory would become two minority factions almost certain to share in defeat, and a movement inspired to stop the big-government agenda would suddenly become its tool.

There's a well-worn path of third-party movements in American history, and it leads straight to a dead end. A cause gathers strength, and its message speaks to millions; then, amid the excitement, a new political party is born, only to perform poorly on Election Day and disappear a cycle or two later. In practice, all that's achieved is a fragmenting of the vote, usually to the benefit of whichever major party the movement had set out to oppose.

Many remember the Reform Party of the 1990s, which formed around the candidacy of Ross Perot. I sure do, because it eliminated any chance that President George H.W. Bush and I would prevail over Bill Clinton and Al Gore in 1992. What started as a grass-roots phenomenon ended with 19 percent support at the ballot box -- and a majority of those voters would probably have gone Republican in a two-party race. Speaking on behalf of the Bush-Quayle campaign, to this day we firmly believe that Perot cost the Republican Party the White House. The 1992 election was the best showing for the movement Perot started, and whatever national influence it retained kept working to the benefit of Democrats.

According to recent polling, a similar scenario could unfold this year: Voters would slightly favor a Republican over a Democrat in a two-person congressional race in November, but the presence of a tea party candidate would split the vote on the right and hand victory to the Democratic candidate.

If real influence is the goal of the tea party movement, there's a much better example for its mostly Republican-leaning members to bear in mind, this year and beyond. In the late 1970s, the tax revolt movement that began in California quickly gained a national following and could easily have become a third party for the 1980 elections. But instead of fielding its own candidates, the movement exerted enormous influence on races across the country. In the end, rather than drawing votes away from the winning coalition, it helped elect Ronald Reagan and a Congress that promptly brought down federal tax rates for all Americans.

This might not have happened if the Republican Party hadn't shown the good sense to embrace the tax revolt, which resembled today's tea party movement.

The tea partiers are concerned, above all, with fiscal matters and national security; they are not focused on the social issues that bring together other parts of the Republican coalition. As Reagan did 30 years ago, Republican leaders between now and 2012 should reach out, as Sarah Palin has done, to an independent grass-roots movement whose energy and conviction the party badly needs. Potential presidential contenders such as Mitch Daniels, Mitt Romney, John Thune and Bobby Jindal have records of serious reform that square with the tea party agenda, and in a general election they could draw tea party votes as part of a broad and victorious coalition.

If the tea party remains an independent political force in 2012, with no partisan ties, so much the better. All that Republicans need to do is speak to its issues, compete for its votes and heed its example of a confident and unapologetic challenge to a liberal president and Congress.

In the past year, the movement has helped to turn Republicans' mood from defeat and gloom to revival and optimism. While GOP leaders in Congress proved more determined and resourceful than the Democrats assumed after their 2008 victory, it was, above all, the tea party that put the fight back into Republicans.

Survey its ranks and you'll find the kind of men and women who have always recharged the GOP when it most needs recharging. Whether they count themselves as Republicans, independents, libertarians or conservative Democrats, these are our folks -- the natural allies of the party of Reagan.

Since the very first tea party gatherings, the national news media has covered this movement in the only way it knows how -- as something grubby, impertinent and possibly dangerous. Of course, in any movement, violence and unlawful behavior are always to be condemned without reservation. But attempts to portray the tea partiers as a surly mob have the contrived feel of a political strategy.

We got an early glimpse of that strategy a year ago. Asked in April 2009 about the tea party protests, Obama's top political adviser offered this view: "Anytime that you have severe economic conditions," David Axelrod said, "there is always an element of disaffection that can mutate into something that's unhealthy."

Suggestions of this kind aim to marginalize millions of voters, activists and community organizers seeking change in a democratic way. If this were a liberal crowd, they wouldn't be getting grief from Washington -- they'd probably be getting funding.

As Democratic operatives view it, the most "unhealthy" aspect of the tea party is that candidates with its support are winning, and many more are likely to win this fall. The movement has enlisted Americans of every background in political activism, some for the first time, and it appeals to citizens on the strength of ideas rather than party affiliation.

That's been known to happen on the left, too, except then we are told it's a refreshing display of grass-roots democracy. Now that this same kind of movement has risen up in defiance of the Obama agenda, it's going to take more than liberal condescension to answer the challenge.

Dan Quayle served as the 44th vice president of the United States from 1989 to 1993. He is the chairman of Cerberus Global Investments. He will be online to chat with readers at 12:00 p.m. on Monday, April 5. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

From the archives: Recent Outlook coverage of the tea party movement includes "Would Reagan vote for Sarah Palin?" (March 7) by Steven F. Hayward, "In America, Crazy is a Preexisting Condition" (Aug. 16) by Rick Perlstein and "Nice party, but not so revolutionary" (April 19) by Benjamin L. Carp.

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