From an old-school conservative, advice for the tea party

By Richard A. Viguerie
Sunday, May 2, 2010; B05

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.

Be independent.

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.

Press ure institutions to change.

We must expand our cause beyond anger at politicians. Wall Street banks once operated with the knowledge that individual integrity is essential to the functioning of a free market, but now we have Goldman Sachs executives cheering the housing market collapse. So, rather than focus solely on government, we also need to train a spotlight on the failed leaders of other major American institutions from Hollywood to Wall Street, including big business, banks, mainstream media, labor unions and organized religion (notably my own Catholic Church).

Get involved, then stay involved.

Tea partiers must make ourselves a constant presence and conscience in the lives of those we elect. Once politicians get into office, they are surrounded by lobbyists and special interests that want more, not less, from government. We must push back by making our influence felt at a steady procession of meetings, breakfasts and dinners, and we must speak up via letters, phone calls, e-mails and town hall meetings. Too often after we send people to Washington, we hear from them only through their fundraising appeals. We need face-to-face contact to remind them that we're here to support them when they do right, and that we'll vote them out when they do wrong.

Avoid the third-party trap.

Just as the tea party movement must not be co-opted by either of the major parties, nor can it yield to the temptation to start a third party. In 2008, Republicans lost three Senate races because of conservative third-party candidates. Those losses have made it more difficult to oppose and defeat liberal judicial nominations, Obamacare, cap-and-trade legislation and other policies that, even in a best-case scenario, will take conservatives years to undo.

As a practical matter, the two major parties have rigged the rules against third parties, all but ensuring defeat. If conservatives fall into the third-party trap, they will split the right-of-center vote, thereby guaranteeing the left's control of America for at least another generation. The opportunity of a lifetime will have been wasted.

This doesn't mean we should automatically support whatever candidates Republicans put up. The tea party electoral strategy should be simple and consistent: We must run principled conservatives in the primaries and then throw our support behind the most conservative major-party candidates in the general election.

Richard A. Viguerie, a pioneer in the use of direct mail for political advocacy, is the author of "Conservatives Betrayed: How George W. Bush and Other Big Government Republicans Hijacked the Conservative Cause."

From the archives: For recent Outlook coverage of the tea party movement, see Dan Quayle's "Don't let the tea party go Perot" (April 4) and Steven F. Hayward's "Would Reagan vote for Sarah Palin?" (March 7).

© 2010 The Washington Post Company