Bye Bye, Tea Party


I joined the Republican Party in 2006, a terrible year to go to bat for conservatives. I ultimately removed my party hat and became an independent some years later, but I remember how I felt about dire predictions for the G.O.P. amid a Democratic takeover: it was all bogus.

Time ran a cover story that year announcing the end of the Reagan revolution with an extremely premature epitaph, or so I thought. “Every revolution begins with the power of an idea and ends when clinging to power is the only idea left,” read The Matrix-y opener to that story.

I wasn’t sold. Our two major political parties are like zombies: they may get the axe from time to time, but they’ll always limp on, regroup, find more brains, repopulate. And so the Republicans did just that, reanimating three years later to overtake the lower chamber with Tea Party-minted leaders that The Economist christened “The Young Guns.”

But now? That Time cover story is starting to sound prescient. To be honest, I don’t think the Republicans will survive — at least not in their current form, and maybe not even as a major party — even if it manages to save face by reopening the government and avoiding a default that Warren Buffet equated to a nuclear bomb.

Don’t take my word for it. Writing for the New Republic — a right-leaning publication — John B. Judis cited a “growing fear among Washington Republicans that the party . . . is headed for history’s dustbin. And I believe that they are right to worry.”

Sure, lawmakers like Reps. Raul Labrador (R-ID) and Michelle Bachman (R-MN) are out front fighting with journalists to recast President Obama as the raison principale for the crisis, but poll after poll echoes Judis’ warnings. An ABC News/Washington Post survey recorded a seven-digit jump in the number of respondents that disapprove of House Republican theatrics — increasing to seven in 10 voters — with 56 percent of those tellingly identifying as conservative. Another poll reported all-time lows in public approval for the Tea Party-controlled Republican party.

Just think of how much worse it will be for Republicans — and our country and the world economy — if a deal falls through and we default on October 17, or anytime after an extension; if Treasury suddenly has to prioritize which of our debt holders we pay for the $16.8 trillion in bonds and securities that foreign governments and investors previously labeled safe bets; if the credit ratings agencies, fiercely protective of their own post-recession reputations, slash our creditworthiness grades across the board.

These fears were unimaginable for a party that billed itself as the good business party even one year ago. It’s why, as the Washington Post reports, more mainstream Republicans are seeking to replace the so-called “suicide caucus” in primaries next year — even if outmatched by Tea Party grassroots muscle.

Which is why I’m now willing to ask honestly: Is it time for conservatives to start a new party and ditch the brand-butchering Tea Party? Here’s how it might happen, and why now would be a good time.

1. A new party would breathe new life into conservatism

The 2012 election was a bellwether that brought more minority voters to the polls than whites for the first time in American history. A Gallup poll shows the same for total party composition last year, with blacks and non-white Hispanics accounting for a full 35 percent of registered Dems — and less than 10 percent of the Republican Party.

The Republican Party is losing ground to the Democrats when it comes to youth, too. Of voters ages 18 to 29, as the Huffington Post reports, 60 percent went for President Barack Obama in the last election, with a few more than half that number voting for Mitt Romney.

A large part of this had to do with Mitt Romney, but the candidate built his campaign on standard G.O.P. positions. Thanks in no small part to efforts to capture the Tea Party vote, these included a lukewarm states-first approach that favored inaction on issues from gay marriage to women’s rights — anathema to young voters. And then, as one National Review columnist put it, “Republicans were clobbered among Hispanics because the Republican primary rewarded candidates for bellicosity regarding illegal immigration.”

What spawned the Tea Party is systemic to modern Republican Party politics and makes the case for a new conservative party.

2. Party statesmen would have to lead the exodus

Third parties and splinter groups rarely do more than undermine their parent parties and spoil elections in American politics. Think back on how Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party handed the 1912 election to Woodrow Wilson, or how Democrats and Republicans regularly accuse the Green and Libertarian parties of siphoning away voters, and you can understand why it seemed like a good idea for Republicans to court the Tea Party in 2010.

There’s a laundry list of reasons why third parties don’t do well in our country. Still, as American Elect learned last year, even media hype and a multi-million-dollar war chest can’t guarantee wiggle room in a two-party system. Something more is needed: name recognition.

To attract disaffected conservatives to their new tent, Republican Party elders would need to lead an exodus from the front. Even if former presidents like George H.W. Bush or George W. Bush didn’t step up (and it’s unlikely that either would, and best that the latter didn’t), others could — namely, Jeb Bush, John McCain, Chris Christie, even fringe or onetime Republicans with cross-party appeal like Jon Huntsman and Michael Bloomberg.

Surprised that any of these could restart a conservative party? You shouldn’t be.

3. Conservatives need to re-brand themselves

When the public accepts a party’s political position as mainstream, it’s time for the loyal opposition to call it a day. Alf Landon Republicans eventually gave way on New Deal pillars like Social Security; Dixiecrats like Strom Thurmond fell quiet after the civil rights movement. In a nod to the popularity of Reaganomics, Bill Clinton famously held a press conference to announce that the “era of big government” was over.

For their part, conservatives need to accept that universal health care coverage is here to stay.

A Democratic Congress and president may have signed it into law over their objections, but a right-leaning Supreme Court heard those grievances and still upheld it. The Oval Office incumbent then won reelection with historic margins and all but one swing state. More importantly, as this Fox News op-ed points out, surveys consistently find more cross-party support for the law as awareness about it grows.

That doesn’t mean that conservatives need to swallow the law like a bitter pill. The whole idea of the individual mandate sprang from the Heritage Foundation, and — as problems pop up with health care exchanges — conservatives can help refine and tweak in the spirit of that policy. Scare tactics like the “Creepy Uncle Sam” campaign are nonstarters for independents and need to go the way of Tea Party budget holdups.

Other G.O.P. platform issues sorely need refreshing or outright overhauls. Deficit reduction is one, albeit without brinkmanship tactics. Tax reform makes for good campaign fodder but would also attract voters if it were meaningful.

Simply saying "no" will not by itself do the new party any good. Democrats often win policy debates by default because conservatives offer few alternatives; outgoing Republicans could change the conversation. Climate change is one issue about which we sorely need to hear more real solutions friendly to consumer choice. I’ve made a conservative argument for marijuana legalization. Conservatives might also finally — if for no other reason than self-preservation — embrace gay marriage and workplace protections.

And I’d personally love to see pro-lifers fight to eliminate abortions by making health care premiums exactly zero for women with unwanted pregnancies and expanding family tax credits to encourage more adoptions.

In any case, conservatives need to do something new, and soon. Outgoing members like me will certainly leave more than a hole in the Republican Party. They’ll leave a grave.