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October 28, 2010 10:52 pm

The Not So Silent Majority

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avatar by Morgan P. Muchnick


Tea Party activists. Photo: Sage Ross.

Many moderate Republicans will wonder why I, a non-Tea Party Republican, would draft a strong defense of the Tea Party movement.  As Dennis Prager, a conservative pundit, often declares, “it is more important to achieve clarity than agreement.”  I believe it is vitally important to be historically fair to this movement, even if one does not necessarily agree with some of its message.  The bulk of the Tea Party movement reflects a neglected silent majority within the GOP, a political base that was catalyzed by the sharp, Leftward turn taken by the country under President Obama’s direction.  However, while the Obama policies were the spark, anger and frustration at their own party has been simmering for some time.  While I do not agree with particular aspects of the movement, I sympathize with the Tea Party frustration and understand that the national Republican Party must embrace the movement, warts and all, if it is to benefit from its passion and avoid a Tea Party exodus and establishment of a rival 3rd party, which would be disaster for the GOP.

First, however, it is worth noting how valuable the movement has been to the Republican Party generally, albeit not necessarily helpful to certain mainstream GOP candidates such as Lisa Murkowski, Trey Grayson, and Mike Castle.  In the American political system, voter apathy and voter turnout play a paramount role in electoral outcomes.  Almost every election outcome can be determined by the level of motivation of GOP or Democratic voters at the time of that particular election.  During the 2006 and 2008 election cycles, Democrats and disenchanted Republicans and Independents were angry and fired-up to cast a vote against the status quo, represented by the Republicans at the time.  Predictably, the Republican Party was dealt a massive electoral defeat.

Today’s Tea Party is a manifestation of similar anger brewing across the country, this time focused against the current party in power, the Democrats.  As much as President Obama would like to continue to blame his predecessor two years into his term, the American people understand that the Democratic Party controls all levers of power, including the Presidency and both houses of Congress.

Unlike the 2006 and 2008 election cycles, however, today voter anger has materialized itself into a new and distinct political movement that champion conservatism and has brought tremendous energy to the Grand Old Party.  In a recent poll taken by the Gallop organization, Republican candidates hold a 53-40% lead in a high turnout environment, and an even higher lead, 56-38%, in a low turnout environment among likely voters.  While this portends a very likely GOP success in November, the generic race is closer among registered voters.  Because likely voters are a more accurate measure of electoral outcomes than registered voters, especially in a mid-term cycle when voters lack inspiration of the sort only a Presidential election can bring to turn out the vote, it seems clear that Tea Party enthusiasm has dramatically strengthened the GOP’s chances this November.

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Why then, are so many mainstream Republican pundits attacking the Tea Party as unsophisticated and/or radicalized?  I personally believe there is a problematic aspect of the Tea Party movement that seems to support candidates who advocate libertarianism rather than traditional Conservatism.  The most notable example of this is in Kentucky where the Tea Party was extremely influential in Rand Paul’s Republican primary victory.  Paul is a believer in libertarianism and is a much weaker candidate than Trey Greyson in a general election.  Paul represents a wing of the Republican Party that, I believe, is unhelpful to reasonable Republicans trying to shrink the federal government where feasible, and simply doesn’t factor into account the complexities of the modern world.

However, as an “inside the beltway”, Harvard-educated Republican, I understand that it is not up to me to tell Kentuckians, Alaskans, or any American who better represents Republican ideals.   Many feel that the “base” of the Republican Party has lacked a strong advocate since the presidency of Ronald Reagan.  The years from 1988 to the present have yielded Republican leaders such as George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, and George W. Bush.  While I personally have great admiration for these men, many among the Tea Party movement see them as lacking true conservative beliefs.  The leadership of the GOP has been telling the base of the party to keep donating money and time while promising to be true to the core conservative ideals now trumpeted by the Tea Party.  However, election cycle after election cycle has come and gone with no truly conservative champion to be seen.

Thus, after being shunned by generations of Republican leaders, the conservative and libertarian wings of the GOP have simply had enough.  Promises from leaders in Washington to govern from a conservative philosophy during primaries, or when they are pandering to conservative audiences, now simply ring hollow.

Moreover, in 2008, the nation elected Barack Obama.  While campaigning in the “middle” of the political spectrum, President Obama has shown himself to be a huge spender and expander of Federal power.  After decades of being ignored by their own political party and the massive spending by Obama that dwarfed the profligacy of President George W. Bush, pent-up anger and frustration finally came bursting out.

So, we now have a movement sparked by frustration at their own party and anger at the Democratic Party for moving the United States far from the conservative, Constitution-based, ideals of the Founding Fathers.  Luckily for the GOP, this movement seems committed to “take back” their party rather than form a new political party.  While this will lead to some messy outcomes, such as an almost assured loss in the Delaware Senate race and a toss-up in the Nevada Senate race – a race that should have been a slam-dunk for the Republican Party – it will, on balance, be a political asset for the Republican Party.  Are mainstream, inside-the-beltway Republicans frustrated at these intra-party tensions? Sure.  However, as one of those Republicans, I think it shows a lot of chutzpa to complain too much considering how the base of the GOP has been treated over the years.

In conclusion, the question as to the Tea Party’s effects on the GOP is a difficult one to answer.  In many ways, we will see after the November elections.  I personally believe the Tea Party is willing to lose some races in order to take back the Republican Party from what they see as big government, big spending Republicans that have been seduced by the Washington, D.C. life.  Regardless of the electoral outcomes in some specific races, the passion and engagement from the Tea Party has been a welcome shot in the arm for the Grand Old Party.

Morgan P. Muchnick is a 2001 graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.  He previously served as professional staff to Senator Fred Thompson and as a volunteer for Senator Thompson’s presidential campaign.  In addition, Mr. Muchnick served as chief speechwriter for DanielAyalon, former Israeli Ambassador to the United States, and as a policy analyst for various organizations on Capitol Hill.

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