Basile: Next Move for the Toxic Tea Party

Tea Party Groups in St.Louis Sept 2010 (AP)

A week or so ago a small group of right wing activists calling themselves the Tea Party Fire Ants staged a boycott of Fox News that received national media attention. What was this group’s gripe? Of all things, they felt that Fox News should be running more stories exposing the Benghazi cover up, questioning the president’s birth certificate, and railing against immigration reform proposals. These people really don’t think that Sean Hannity is conservative enough.

They’re not a big organization, but it doesn’t matter. When a Tea Party group goes off the rails like this, major news outlets are more than happy to use them as yet another example of a movement out of touch with mainstream America and for that matter, common sense.

What can be done?

I was there at the beginning of the movement back in April, 2009. Together with conservative radio talk show host David Webb and a small group of others, we founded one of the nation’s first independent Tea Party organizations in the heart of New York City. We had Republicans, Independents and yes, plenty of Democrats all appreciating that Obama’s brand of leadership would mean more government, higher taxes, less freedom and more debt for every American.  History has proven us prescient.

When I was interviewed by Time Magazine at the close of 2011 as part of a spread about political activism around the world, I mentioned to them that for all the coverage of the depraved Occupy Wall Street crowd, the Arab Spring and European protests, the Tea Party here in the United States – through peaceful demonstration – was raising its voice before all of them.  That simply hadn’t occurred to the reporters. Hundreds of Tea Party groups have made a difference at the local level, rolling up their sleeves and impacting races from school board to Congress.

For the last four years, the movement has helped shape our national political conversation.  There are those who might disagree, but the reason I can sit in a room today in deep blue New York City and talk with lifelong Democrats who are infuriated by the government’s spending, debt and onerous tax policies is a credit to the voices of the Tea Party – not the GOP.

But politics is about perception. Developing and maintaining a brand requires taking command of that perception. Perception isn’t just about how you define your brand but increasingly in the digital age it has to do with combating how others seek to define you.

One assertion few would argue with is that the Tea Party has utterly failed to manage its own brand. There are reasons for this, principal among them the fact that the Tea Party is not and has never been monolithic. That made it susceptible to the hijacking of its brand by so-called “national” Tea Party groups who in some cases have been little more than talking heads on television or worse yet, fronts for political consultants enabling them to tap the financial resources of unsuspecting conservative donors.

Tea Party Express and FreedomWorks spent the last four years making millions for its leadership, but failing to strengthen the movement as a whole. While Dick Armey and other DC-centric personalities made a fortune capitalizing on the movement, they squandered a chance to help build an enduring, permanent legacy. In fact, they did just the opposite.

Then there are the groups like the Tea Party Fire Ants whose focus is far afield from the core principles of the movement.  As a result the Tea Party is now often associated with fringe or unelectable candidates, social issues and money-grubbing political insiders.

There is no such thing as a pro-life Tea Party group. There’s no such thing as an anti-gay marriage Tea Party group or a “Birther” Tea Party group. Those issues are not Tea Party issues. Oh and by the way, the guy on Fox News who says he speaks for the Tea Party is likely the guy in Washington who is hanging close by the studio.

Politics isn’t about purity. I understand that. Unfortunately, the people, who often purport to represent the Tea Party, simply don’t.

Recently Former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour told a group of Congressional staffers essentially that purity in politics leads to defeat. It’s unity that prevails. He’s right. The Tea Party simply hasn’t had unity of purpose and has instead allowed its simple, straightforward message to be clouded by those who would co-opt the movement or drive negative perceptions.

It’s simple. You know you have a virtually insurmountable brand problem when the majority of the American people favor your core tenets – fiscal responsibility, smaller government, lower taxes, pro-growth policies, protecting the free market, debt reduction, deficit reduction and local control – but less than 30% view your movement favorably. Even more damning, only 8% in a recent survey identified themselves as a member of the movement.

If proponents of smaller government, lower taxes, a vibrant private sector and Constitutional freedom permit themselves to be defined by small groups of radicals then the Tea Party will become a truly toxic force. It will be a label shunned by politicians and rejected by the ordinary Americans who have always been the backbone of the movement.

The Tea Party isn’t about Republicanism. It’s also not and has never been about social conservatism. It’s about the 60-40 and 70-30 issues Americans of all political stripes view as critical to the survival of the nation. It’s about a government that is more responsive, responsible, effective and respectful of our freedom that doesn’t just treat Americans like an ATM.

It was the very grassroots, decentralized nature of the Tea Party that made it so special at the beginning.  But that has also led to its inability to control the perceptions of its brand.

Perhaps it’s time for a change.

The Republican National Committee just spent months writing an “autopsy” report on the 2012 elections and its brain trust came to the obvious conclusion that the party was in many ways out of touch with minorities, mainstream American voters and the middle class. The GOP has also clearly been complicit in the advance of government to an unsustainable level. On the other side of the aisle, Democrats are moving to the left, doubling down on the Progressive philosophy that is crushing personal and economic freedom.

In the middle is the now more than 40% of Americans who are no longer registered in either political party. That’s where the opportunity lays for the remaining fiscally-focused grassroots Tea Party groups. They would do well to see themselves as a bottom up force for reform that targets the political middle and works outward, rather than launching a broadside from the right.  A concerted effort to reach moderates may just give the Tea Party some new life.

Better coordination between local groups on a state-wide level, more engagement with local and regional media and a return to a focus on fiscal issues will help drive better perceptions and greater electoral impact over time.

It may not be called the Tea Party in the end. That brand may be too damaged to fully rehabilitate.  But as we said in 2009, it’s not the labels that matter.  It’s the ideas.  The concept is largely still sound. A unity of purpose built around personal and economic freedom can make local grassroots groups the voice of the American majority again. Tea Party values can still be a political force to be reckoned with and a catalyst for active, effective and responsible citizenship that protects freedom.

Thomas J. Basile is a Republican political commentator.  Follow him on Twitter @TJBasile.

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