The Tea Party And The Politician

tom3By Tom Tillison
Orlando Political Press

The tea party movement is fast approaching it’s two year anniversary.  As many of you will recall, it was on February 19, 2009 that Rick Santelli stood on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade and made his now famous rant.

Of course, any self respecting Ron Paul-ite will quickly tell you the movement pre-dates the ‘rant heard ’round the world’, nonetheless, this is the date widely acknowledged as the birth of the tea party.

One of the prevailing themes of the tea party movement, accurately captured in the book ‘Tea Party, The Awakening’, written by Brent Morehouse, which includes testimonials from tea party members from across the country, is the idea that for most, this was their first foray into politics. 

Of the tea party, I am qualified to speak, of politicians, well, maybe not as much.  What I can do is share my observations over the past two years. 

Observations; remarks, comments, or statement based on what one has noticed or observed.

When the tea party first exploded on the scene, with all apologies for the violent rhetoric, it was the people sending a message to the politicians.  In fact, there was much heated debate within the movement about whether politicians should even speak at tea parties.  The prevailing thought at the time being that we want our elected officials to listen for a change.

From those early days, as we approached the upcoming 2010 election, the tea party movement began to evolve.  As the folks became more aware of just how woefully bad the political process had become in this country, many began to cling less to their bibles and guns and instead, began to fulfill a sudden insatiable thirst for information.  And, as we educated ourselves, we came to the realization that we must do more than just stand on the sidewalks and yell.

Of course, true to the nature of the tea party, this evolution did not come without contention.  Again, many felt that the tea party should stay out of campaigns and should focus strictly on the issues and the driving principles behind them.  To which just as many responded that the political establishment is more than willing to determine who your candidates will be if you allow them.

It is here that the waters began to get murky.

In the beginning, our elected officials weren’t quite sure what to make of the tea party.  Many stood by in amusement, somewhat excited by all the energy, but, having never really witnessed such an awakening of the people, they were not sure where they fit in, if at all.  And, not expecting it to last, most politicians kept their distance.

As the movement continued to grow and grassroots candidates began to emerge from the ranks, the politicians starting seeing the tea party a little differently.  Not only was it challenging the way business was being done, it was now challenging the throne of power itself.  And, as the grassroots candidates began to climb in popularity, many politicians came to the realization that ‘there’s gold in them thar’ hills’!

Here in Florida, Marco Rubio personifies this idea, although it’s not accurate to say that Rubio emerged from the ranks of the tea party. 

Rubio began his candidacy for the U.S. Senate in the very early days of the tea party movement, officially announcing his run in early May, 2009, so his candidacy evolved as the movement did. 

In the beginning, he was going up against a sitting Republican Governor, Charlie Crist, who was very popular at the time.  Rubio’s values consistently put him to the right of Crist on just about every issue and this began to pay dividends in the polling.  So much so that it eventually led to Crist making the now infamous decision to run as an Independent candidate.  Trust me, Rubio’s success did not go unnoticed by other politicians.

Now, of course, a fair question is did Rubio’s ideology shift toward the increasingly popular tea party or did the tea party just emulate similar values, but that’s a debate for another time.

Rubio’s campaign history is important because much of this happened early on in the election cycle and he was among the first politicians that the tea party supported.  There were other factors playing out at the same time, such as Scott Brown’s surprising victory in Mass. and the stunning primary upset of incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett in Utah. 

All of these events signaled that real change was in the air and other politicians had plenty of time to take it all in, and thus, the great migration to the right began.  As did the full embrace of the tea party by many politicians.  And, still, the waters became murkier.

As for the tea party, once the primaries were over, there were some tough decisions to be made.  In many cases, the tea party candidate of choice did not prevail, leaving an eventual winner that didn’t necessarily reflect all the desired values.  The more libertarian minded remained rigid and refused to support the “lessor of two evils”, opting for a third party choice instead.  Fortunately, the vast majority were pragmatic enough to realize the critical need to restore some balance in Congress to stop the ‘progressive’ onslaught that was underway.

So the melding of two worlds began in earnest.  Relationships were formed, bonds established and in many cases, even friendships developed as the tea party and the GOP rolled up their sleeves and went to work.  To avoid baseless far left criticism, as if there’s any other kind, it’s necessary to point out that tea party members would have just  as happily stood behind fiscally conservative Democrats, had that species still existed.

All in all, relationships, bonds and friendships are good things.  Even necessary, to establish a much needed line of communication.  Right?  Well, if kept in the proper perspective, perhaps…

Our local REC chairman is a solid supporter of the tea party movement.  He has said on more than one occasion that the REC’s are designed to support Republican candidates, not to hold the party accountable.  He goes on to correctly suggest that the tea party plays a critical role in that it is the natural element to fill this void, which get’s to the core of what the movement is all about.

Relationships can become liabilities when they come to stand in the way of that accountability.  Politicians, by their very nature, look to take advantage of the terrain around them in order to sustain and/or advance their positioning.  And friends are far more forgiving than respected adversaries.

When you think about it, politicians are in a difficult position.  I believe most want to stand on principle, but at the same time, they’re beholden to the party structure to be successful.  We all saw examples of this in last years primary, where grassroots candidates struggled to compete on an uneven playing field.  It’s the rare candidate indeed that can prevail without the support of a major party.

With critics on all sides, the tea party must hold itself to a higher standard.  Yes, the waters have become murky, however, finding ourselves in the greatest struggle of our generation, the stakes are too high and our cause too great to think that we cannot succesfully manage this nuance.  The one constant through all of this is that it will be we the people that solve our nation’s problems. 

Particularly when you consider that politicians are far more receptive to the tea party when it’s election time, yet, not as much so when it’s time to govern.


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Tom Tillison


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