From an old-school conservative, advice for the tea party
As an active participant in the conservative movement for more than 50 years, I've long thought that, even at the peak of our strength, conservatives could only slow the growth of government, not reverse it.
That was the case under Ronald Reagan, who didn't have a sympathetic Congress and whose administration was plagued with officials who did not share his vision. It was the case in the era of Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay, who came to power claiming that Washington was a cesspool, but later acted as if it were a hot tub. DeLay's K Street Project, which pressured lobbyists to contribute to Republicans, was but one example of how their early ardor for reform was replaced by a desire to hold onto power.
But with the emergence of the "tea party" movement, for the first time in my life I sense that it may be possible for conservatives to actually shrink the federal government.
This moment has been a long time coming. Back when Barry Goldwater became the first member of the conservative movement to be nominated for president, the movement had just two legs -- free markets and a strong national defense. After religious conservatives became the third leg, conservatives won three landslide presidential elections in the 1980s. But even that was not enough to stop the expansion of government.
The tea party has added a fourth leg -- an emphasis on limiting government through fidelity to the Constitution and our nation's founding principles, without being operationally aligned with either party. With this addition, we conservatives now find ourselves sitting at a large four-legged table and outnumbering liberals by almost two to one in a recent Gallup poll.
Yet some of the tea party's greatest strengths also present formidable challenges. How does a leaderless movement (and our lack of a single leader is very much one of our strengths) continue to grow and gain power?
More specifically, how can we make sure that we stay focused on a central set of causes? We must define ourselves -- or our opponents will. And they are working overtime to do so. Proverbs 29:18 tells us, "Where there is no vision, the people perish."
As a longtime member of the movement for smaller government, I've seen political causes, both liberal and conservative, rise and fall and disappear. From that vantage point, I have five suggestions for my fellow tea partiers, advice that can help the movement endure for years to come and make it the main vehicle of change in America.
Most important, tea partiers must remain distinct from both political parties. The GOP would like nothing better than to co-opt the movement and control the independent conservatives who are its members. But we must keep in mind that perhaps the single biggest mistake of the conservative movement was becoming an appendage of the Republican Party.
In his 1976 presidential primary campaign, Reagan said we needed new leaders unfettered by old ties and old relationships. The tea party does not have the old ties and old relationships with Republican politicians that Reagan was talking about and that caused so many conservative leaders to lose their way. Remember that most conservative leaders and organizations in Washington were silent when George W. Bush and congressional Republicans were expanding government at a record-breaking pace. Even today, too many conservatives are willing to overlook the fact that the GOP's leaders in Congress, Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. John Boehner, were willing accomplices of Bush's spending policies and that Mitt Romney was for Obamacare before Obama was.
Go on a policy offensive.
We must take on policy initiatives that will fundamentally change America but that, because of crony politics, neither political party will touch. Tea partiers already know that promoting complete adherence to the Constitution, and particularly to the 10th Amendment -- which reserves the powers not explicitly granted to the federal government for the states and the people -- is the way to change policy. Using this approach, we need to move major proposals to the center of debate and action, among them audits of the Federal Reserve, a restructured tax code and an end to corrupt gerrymandering. We must also pursue constitutional amendments mandating term limits, a balanced budget with tax limitations and an end to automatic citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants.