Can Tea Parties Succeed Again?

Only if they think long-term

Many of the groups that make up Michigan's tea party movement appear to be at a crossroads.

Groups that are willing to learn and adapt likely will become more effective in the future. Those that don't may find themselves increasingly frustrated and ineffective.

Two key elements are essential for the growth and impact of the movement. First, it must be willing to take a longer view. Instant gratification has become a hallmark of our culture, but it is poisonous to a political movement. In the long run, the tortoises are going to win the important races, not the hares.

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The turnaround between the national election results of 2010 and 2012 bears witness to the short term volatility of the electorate. A broader timeframe, possibly spanning multiple election cycles, may be needed for the movement to achieve maximum impact.

Political movements of value have staying power. They stand on their principles; poke, probe and sting where and when they can have an effect and continuously prepare to step forward when the time is ripe.

The second necessary element goes hand and glove with the first. Picking which battles to fight and what tactics to use are of vital importance.

The movement needs to make a difference where and when it can, but should avoid investing too much time and energy where it can't. Empty threats lead to the loss of credibility outside of the movement and — most importantly — within it.

Bold predictions that: “we’re going to do this” or “we’re going to do that” accomplish nothing and can lead to eating crow. Working methodically to spring an upset in an election speaks for itself. Victories have the loudest voices.

No one should be under the illusion that the re-election of President Obama in 2012 wasn't a setback for the movement. It provided several lessons. No. 1, despite what many political conservatives believed, a majority of voters did not perceive that the economy was in a shambles. No. 2, deciding to downplay key issues, such as Obamacare, only lost votes in the end. No. 3, the nation will probably have to experience some painful object lessons before the political pendulum swings back to the right. And No. 4, the absence of a truly anti-big government candidate once again was a losing formula.

The problem of not having the right candidate has been the Achilles heel of the tea party movement, whether at the national, state or local level. You can't beat somebody with nobody and threatening to do so is worse than a waste of breath.

But having the right candidates at the right times and place are worth the wait. History shows that they will arise.

In Michigan's 2014 elections, the cupboard may seem relatively bare for the tea party movement. There will be races and issues in which the movement plays an important role. There may be fewer, however, than in past and future years.

Most of those elected to office with the help of the tea parties in 2010 will be up for re-election. If any who have disappointed the movement face serious challenges in primaries the tea parties can have an impact. What is also likely is that bad votes taken, from the movement's perspective, in 2012 and 2013 will come back to haunt lawmakers when they attempt to take their next career step — running for a new office against serious opposition in 2016 and beyond.

That's one reason the movement has to take a longer view. There are many areas where constant pressure should be unrelenting. In other areas it needs to be patient, work smarter, build from within and engage intelligently, taking advantage of every opportunity that presents itself.

The mainstream media and other sources could start claiming the movement is over and try to paint it as a phenomenon of 2009-2010. But a movement with any backbone won’t allow barbs and insults to deter its purpose or sucker it into acting against its own self-interest.

(Editor’s note: Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Michigan Capitol Confidential. He is a veteran Lansing-based journalist. His columns do not represent the viewpoints of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy or Michigan Capitol Confidential.)