I get this question a lot, and I see references to it in the comments section here at Hot Air as well. If the Tea Party had such great success in 2010, why do we have the field of presidential candidates we see now? Has the Tea Party failed and/or run out of steam? In my column for The Week, I explain that the answer is no, and that this presidential cycle would be a poor measure in any case:
Consider the impact of the New Left movement in the 1960s. Originally outside of the two-party paradigm, the rise of the New Left created a rift among Democrats during the Vietnam War that led to their disastrous 1968 convention in Chicago and resulted in the election of Richard Nixon, and then his re-election in 1972. The New Left’s absorption into the Democratic Party took years — and arguably, didn’t produce a legitimate presidential nominee until Barack Obama, 40 years after the Chicago convention. It took that amount of time to elect New Left candidates as state legislators, U.S. representatives and senators, and build the seniority and clout to take over the establishment of the Democratic Party, and in many cases, replace moderate Democrats in Congress as well as Republicans.
During those decades, the advocates and activists in this movement maintained pressure on the Democratic Party. They launched think tanks, moved into the leadership of unions, and went into “community organizing,” which is how our current president got his start in politics. They changed the popular culture and media to help make their views more mainstream. Instead of fighting the establishment, the New Left eventually became the establishment in the Democratic Party — so much so that Democrats founded the Democratic Leadership Council in the late 1980s that tried to pull the Democratic Party back to the center, and ended up promoting Bill Clinton for the nomination in 1992 for that very purpose.
The Tea Party got off to a much better and less divisive start in fighting the Republican establishment than the New Left did with the Democratic Party in the 1960s. After less than two years, and without the platforms of academia and the entertainment industry for support, the Tea Party has dozens of House members and a handful of senators beholden to it. Thanks to a few effective anti-incumbent electoral efforts, the Republican establishment has developed at least a healthy respect for Tea Partiers’ grassroots power. However, it will take at least a few more cycles for Tea Party–backed elected officials to grow in number and seniority, which will produce an evolution in the Republican Party — and more Tea Party–style candidates with the requisite experience and support to make legitimate runs for the presidency.
The key to success for the Tea Party is the long view. Given the spectacular success of 2010, it would be very easy to expect nearly-instant revolution in political thinking, but that’s unrealistic. The American political process is designed to prevent sharp lunges in any direction; it’s one reason why our political structure has remained stable. Real change takes decades, not months, as fresh blood and fresh ideas work their way into the mainstream.
The danger in unrealistic expectations is disillusionment, which will bring a halt to that process as people give up on the necessary hard work. And it’s not difficult to be disillusioned by the choices for the top of the ticket, although I believe that most of the candidates now competing are better than what we have now in the White House, and that this is a better field than four years ago in some respects. We have to choose one of them for the top of the ticket, but for the Tea Party activists, that’s almost separate from their real work this summer, which is to get more Tea Party-style candidates into Congress and state legislatures around the country. As that effort builds from cycle to cycle, the Tea Party’s grassroots movement will garner more strength inside the GOP and eventually start producing authentic and electable potential nominees for the presidency. Meanwhile, the process of gaining strength will make it easier to get a Republican President to stay with the Tea Party agenda of smaller government and economic prosperity.
Don’t get discouraged. This is a long road, not a sprint. This cycle won’t be a failure unless we give up before we get started.