Columns, Opinion

METCALF: Tea party politics

The tea party is ready for a revolution. The “Patriots” of the now nationwide grassroots political organizations are pissed off and preparing for the worst. The members of these organizations are not your average right-wing extremists fighting abortion, gays and terrorist threats. Tea partiers tend to be the folks affected by the economic downturn. They are mostly blue-collar citizens who have lost their jobs and homes and who have given themselves a shotgun education in laissez-faire economics and libertarian social policies.

As some of the most vocal opposition to the Democratic Party, the tea party supporters have put themselves in a powerful position. It’s almost a rule that the president’s party loses seats in Congress at mid-term elections, Boston University political science professor Andrew Reeves said. So the tea partiers are in a prime position to attack the faltering President whose inspirational wave has hit sandbars as of late.

But what many people fail to recognize is that the tea party movement isn’t a rejection of the Republican Party, either; rather, it’s an attempt to refocus their overall strategy. Members of the movement are fed up with big government, big spending and what they view as violations of the constitution. They emphasize individuality in making decisions, rather than following party policy.

“Our goal is to get voters in front of candidates so that people who were previously uninvolved, get involved,” said Christine Varley, a co-founding organizer of the Greater Boston Tea Party. “We have more than enough political groups telling us what to do. We don’t need anymore of that.”

Varley is a member of the Republican Party who would like to see the party endorse tea party ideals.

Tea partiers have used social media outlets like Twitter, Facebook and especially meetup.com to organize and inform their followers. Using the website teapartypatriots.org, supporters can locate the nearest tea party group. There are groups in all 50 states, including 16 in Massachusetts. Each group has an organizer who arranges meeting places and dates. Meetings are often informal affairs where they discuss issues, plan rallies or watch Glenn Beck, the Fox News talk show host who has become a vocal leader of the movement after organizing a large anti-tax rally on Sept. 12 of last year.

What remains unclear is the goals of the party itself. Small government, a free economy and constitutional rights are important for all conservatives, but why leave the Republican Party to raise these concerns?

Marco Rubio, who is challenging establishment candidate and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist for a Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, has assimilated himself within the tea party while remaining in the Republican Party. In an interview with Newsweek, he was quick to ensure he was identified as a Republican, saying, “When you talk about the tea party, remember, I’m a Republican.” Rubio’s savvy politics in incorporating the tea party into his Republican campaign has given him an edge over Crist in a recent Rasmussen poll, showing him leading the governor 49 percent to 37 percent.

Tea party support behind Massachusetts’ newest senator, Republican Scott Brown, in the last weeks of his campaign was enough for him to surge to victory. Tea partiers lauded the victory as their own even though Scott Brown always identified himself as a Republican. Sarah Palin, the pitbull of populist thought, has been quick to identify herself with the movement. She was the keynote speaker at the tea party convention, which held court at the beginning of February.

The tactics of this new Republicanism are reminiscent of Howard Dean’s failed presidential bid in 2004, in which he used the fired-up far-left blogosphere to ignite his campaign. However, his eccentricity was shot down after an awkward “PYAAAH!” upon losing the Iowa primary. But Dean’s forward-thinking resulted in huge gains in 2008 as his own Democratic Party plan led to enormous online fundraising and grassroots mobilization for Barack Obama and the Democrats.

The tea party could learn a few things from Dean. They have a huge mass of people that are angry and motivated, much like the blogosphere in 2004. Their opinions make sense to themselves and have generated massive grassroots mobilization all over their country. Their effects are already being felt in national elections. But they must be careful not to have a “PYAAAH” moment. Too many of their supporters are obsessed with the wrong ideas. They frequently associate Obama with Hitler and litter their own message boards with racist comments. The fact that they don’t have a leader or clear strategy allows them to collect all kinds of outsider groups under their huge net, each group vying for a piece of this newfound power. But all it takes is one guy to make a big public mistake to cripple the fledgling movement.

On tax day, April 15, the tea party is scheduled to release their tea party manifesto &- a 10 to 12 point explanation of what they want. How the Republican Party responds to these beliefs will be an important moment for the two parties. Will they be able to assimilate and take the Democrats down in the November 2010 elections, or will they continue to squabble over specifics? Ultimately the tea party aims to be revolutionary, but its real aim is more at refocusing the Republican Party.

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