The Tea Party: More than steam

Campaign 2010

The Tea Party movement is "not that important," according to Thomas Friedman today in The New York Times ("The Tea Kettle Movement"). It will affect the elections, he says, but not the future.

Friedman claims that there are presently two Tea Party movements. What we now call the Tea Party movement he calls the Tea Kettle movement-just a vehicle for letting off steam. It's "all steam and no engine." It complains about deficits and big government, but has no plan for making actual cuts.

First, the name: Don't expect that "tea kettle" nomenclature to catch on.

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Second, the agenda: There is one, and it's obvious to everyone in the movement. Stop spending! Stop the Obama addiction to zeros. Friedman is too casual with history when he says the Tea Party reserves its ire for government spending and intrusion only under Barack Obama's administration. Andrea Tantaros of the New York Daily News reminds us:

"[Karl] Rove, George W. Bush and many incumbents, including President Obama, are the reason we even have the Tea Party movement. Bush ran up deficits. Obama quadrupled them. To many disgruntled conservatives, Rove was behind Bush in giving us open borders, tax cuts that expire, Medicare Part D and busted budgets."

But Obama broke the dam. The difference is what someone called "the trouble with trillions." The Obama regime has gone where no government has gone before, and at warp speed. Putting the brakes on this in November would be no small accomplishment.

Beyond that, generating a legislative plan is not the function of a popular protest at the grassroots level. Its purpose is to express the public alarm, indicate broadly what the public sees as the problem (government spending, federal intrusion into the private sphere, and departure from constitutional boundaries), provoke concrete solutions from existing and emerging leaders, and vote out of office anyone who is clearly adding to the problem instead of coming up with a solution.

And indeed solutions are out there. The Republican "Pledge to America" is a start. It's a summary of measures that have broad enough support to serve as a rallying point for the midterm elections. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has given us a "Roadmap" for refueling the country's prosperity and competitive edge. Without Tea Party sirens howling across the nation, would we have either of these plans on the table?

But in contrast to this political non-entity of a movement, Friedman calls our attention to "the important Tea Party movement." The agenda he associates with this group seems reasonable in some ways-immigration and Social Security reform, cutting payroll taxes and corporate taxes-but it's not the pent-up demand of a silent popular movement. It's just Tom Friedman.

As for electoral politics, Friedman tells us this huge, inarticulate, and thus far undiscovered political volcano . . .

". . . stretches from centrist Republicans to independents right through to centrist Democrats . . . and is looking for a leader with three characteristics. First, a patriot: a leader who is more interested in fighting for his country than his party. Second, a leader who persuades Americans that he or she actually has a plan not just to cut taxes or pump stimulus, but to do something much larger-to make America successful, thriving and respected again. And third, someone with the ability to lead in the face of uncertainty and not simply whine about how tough things are-a leader who believes his job is not to read the polls but to change the polls."

But he is not describing two different movements at this point. They're two different issues. The Tea Party movement is concerned with the crisis of looming national bankruptcy brought on by drunken irresponsibility and ideological obsession in Washington. The sort of character the justifiably angry American public is looking for in the person who would lead us out of this mess is a separate question. The three characteristics Friedman describes are completely uncontroversial. He basically describes what a political leader ought to be. He describes a statesman.

So the two issues converge on this question. Is the Tea Party Movement bringing statesman into public life to address this national crisis? For the next two years, starting in November, the answer will unfold.

D.C. Innes
D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.


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