The 2009 gubernatorial primary will always be remembered as the high point of the old Reagan coalition in New Jersey. The two main candidates for the GOP nomination were pro-life and pro-second amendment. Both had economic platforms that were pro-business, with planks devoted to reducing the size and scope of government, and cutting taxes.
The state’s conservative movement, born in the 2001 primary upset victory of Bret Schundler, having grown under the leadership of Steve Lonegan, had turned the 2009 primary into a no-go zone for moderates. Even the third candidate in the race was one of the Legislature’s most reliable conservatives.
Then the Tea Party movement came on the scene and, overnight, everything changed.
The Tea Party started as a grassroots reaction to the liberalism of the new administration in Washington and its over-reaching, freedom and liberty destroying programs. The new movement focused on the bailouts, Cap & Trade, and ObamaCare. Across the country, there was an awakening among those who had been disconnected from the political process.
There were so many new volunteers that they burst the old pathways of activism, spreading in all directions. Existing conservative groups couldn’t organize them quickly enough and without leadership providing focus, dozens of local warlords – each with their view of the world - emerged. Cap & Trade – even ObamaCare – meant less to this new leadership. There was no unified message, or course of action.
Some years ago, there was a coup against the government of a third world nation. The coup was led by a group of military officers. Midway through the coup, privates organized a coup against the officers. The second succeeded in taking control, but then discipline broke down, troops began looting, which allowed the government to reassert itself. Both coups ultimately failed – the first because it lost its grassroots, the second for lack of focus.
The Reagan Coalition that led conservatives from the political wilderness and brought them unprecedented victories was a balance of geopolitical worldview, social and cultural concerns, and economic theory. It was led by thoughtful and patient men and women with long experience in the political process. It was well over a decade in the making.
Instead of the Reagan Coalition we now have tribes. The chiefs of these tribes don’t have much experience in politics. Many didn’t even bother to vote before 2009 and most will tell you that they “woke up” only after the election of President Barack Obama. But they demand action, want it right away, and get angry when they don’t get it. They don’t understand that democracy – especially representative democracy – requires patience and compromise. That’s the way a Republic works. Compromise is antithetical and a dirty word to them.
The Reagan Coalition had its litmus tests – every ideology does. These revolved around issues like abortion and “no new tax” pledges. They are gone. Instead, Tea Party chiefs interpret the U.S. Constitution to determine what the Founders did or didn’t mean. Individually they come up with their own very different ideas.
Now there are new litmus tests, with the goal of “vetting” candidates to determine if they are “Constitutional” or not. Of course, what is “Constitutional” varies based on the myriad of interpretations held by individual groups. Some see the Deists who founded the American Republic as the original born-again Christians, so for them, prospective candidates have to sign-off on Creation Science, swearing to ensure that children are taught that man and dinosaurs existed at the same time.
The movement has attracted a deeply disturbing fringe element. Websites post representations of the President as a ghetto pimp. Emails are circulated comparing the First Lady to a chimpanzee. Until recently, one website had a whole section devoted to “racial issues”. While most Tea Party members steer clear of this, some of the biggest mouths in the movement promote it.
Conspiracy theories abound. Neophytes nurture distrust towards anyone active before 2009. Veteran conservatives are attacked simply because they were fighting for the cause back when many in the Tea Party couldn’t be bothered to even vote.
It is too early to tell how this will turn out. The Tea Party could incorporate itself into the larger conservative movement, adding strength, or it could go down its own road – making eccentric demands of candidates that destroy their prospects for election. Oddly enough, we faced this before. Back then Ronald Reagan and Bill Buckley drove out the conspiracy theorists and racists – and the modern conservative movement was born.
Rob Eichmann is the elected Republican State Committeeman from Gloucester County and is widely recognized as its most conservative member. He has been involved in conservative politics and activism in New Jersey for more than 20 years. He is a contributor on Conservativenewjersey.com and can be followed on Twitter @RobEichmannNJ.