And it worked. The crowds at tea party movement protests grew month-by-month in 2009 and became larger in 2010. The GOP establishment slowly started to get the message that it was time to put the foot down on the ways of Washington and start speaking up for the conservative movement.
But the “tea party” has always been more a state of mind than an organized movement. And the movement’s impact in the 2012 presidential election came into question when Mitt Romney, who had positions on most issues that were more conservative than those of John McCain in 2008, underperformed McCain in votes from key GOP-leaning demographics.
There are hundreds of organizations around the nation bearing the tea party name. And if their overall influence among voters was waning earlier this year, the revelation of IRS targeting against organizations bearing names that even hinted of tea party leanings gave the movement as a whole a chance for rejuvenation.
That said, there is emerging a risk that the movement could start to muddle its message and fumble back the political football gift it received when the IRS actions hit the news.
To stick with the football analogy for a moment, I can almost hear the late “Monday Night Football” announcer Howard Cosell’s voice as he describes this moment in time for those who are part of the tea party movement. “But suddenly the ball comes loose from the running back’s arms, and the opposing team recaptures what it had just lost ... the ball and momentum in the game ... and on the sidelines team members could be found fighting amongst themselves.”
Oh, yes, that could be where this great movement is headed. Consider just one example in the heartland of the tea party, Republican-controlled Georgia.
There are numerous organizations that lay claim to the tea party moniker in this state. And, to their credit, each has seemed to operate effectively in shaping Georgia’s GOP to the very conservative edge of conservative.
But in the last few months, the groups have started warring. Not over taxes, or the federal debt, or immigration. Their war is over, of all things, solar energy.
That’s right, the various tea party “leaders” have decided to dominate the news talking not about the IRS or PRISM, but solar energy. This is the very same well-intended but obscure effort that brought about the entire Solyndra debacle that so embarrassed the Obama administration.
Polling shows that Georgia Republicans and conservatives associate solar energy with the “liberal political philosophy” more than almost any other specific source of electrical power. They are much more in support of even nuclear power, viewing it as more associated with the conservative spectrum.
In most conservative states, solar is still associated more with the politics of Bobby Kennedy Jr. than of the GOP or tea party movement — again a well-intended man, but one who could not win a statewide race in conservative Georgia even if he paid every voter.
Since the days of Jimmy Carter’s forward thinking but much ridiculed installation of solar panels in the White House (they were ultimately removed for failure to work), to the Solyndra debacle, Republicans and conservatives have viewed solar and wind as great concepts, but unworkable and somehow more a part of the left’s agenda than the right’s. They may be way off, but that’s their view.
Now comes the danger for the tea party. Various tea party entities in Georgia have chosen to do battle over the effort to impose a greater solar-based energy quotient into the state’s regulated energy provider. In recent days they have blasted one another. One tea party organization has pushed the concept as a money-saver, while two others have dismissed it as potentially costly and speculative. Thus the purpose and image become blurred for the public. They all have the best of intentions, but the least compelling of issues.
These patriots are missing the point. Solar energy may be the greatest thing since sliced bread. But those who first took up banners and waved flags in favor of less government, reducing the debt and cutting taxes have no clue as to how or why solar energy has anything to do with their effort.
This type of “getting off course” has occurred in other states, as well. With privacy and liberty under attack and money still being printed and spent by the government with reckless abandon, the tea party movement cannot afford to mix messages, even if the message seems cool or visionary to some. If they do, they will be dancing between the political raindrops, trying to catch a ray of elusive electoral sun, and their marchers and banner carriers will congregate elsewhere.
Matt Towery heads the polling and political information firm InsiderAdvantage.