The Conversation With a Florida Tea Partier That Should Scare Every Republican
Last week, Mollie raised an interesting point about what a Mitt Romney nomination means for the Republican Party. In the comments, I shared my concern concerning the lean-Republican independents who make up much of the Tea Party, and who prior to 2009 were mostly inactive in politics beyond regularly voting.
The Tea Party is a collection of people who felt compelled to transition from citizens to activists in favor of limited government and fiscal restraint. Many sacrifice time away from family, work, and life in a desperate attempt to save the nation they love, from their perspective. My concern is that the Tea Party will recoil from supporting a Republican Party that is headed by John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and Mitt Romney.
I spoke with one such Tea Partier, Rebecca from Florida, over the weekend. She's a retired detective turned young stay-at-home mom, who labels herself a "generic Tea Partier." What she had to say was fascinating and illuminating, and it should concern just about every smart Republican. She was gracious enough to let me publicize her thoughts here at Ricochet.
Here's what she had to share:
"I became politically engaged after the 2008 election," Rebecca told me. "I used to only vote in Presidential elections and local elections that were of interest to me. In January of 2008 I saw Barack Obama give a speech and I was really wowed. He is quite a gifted speaker." She admits that she "liked what he was saying, but some things were just a little off."
She started listening to Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck again, wanting to hear what this Obama fellow was really about. But beyond that, she didn't engage in activism - she just showed up to vote for McCain, despite what she considered his "progressivism."
"Obama got elected. Then Obamacare was rammed through. I was appalled. I couldn't believe the shady way such important legislation was passed," Rebecca said. "I have some like-minded mommy friends and I got together with them. I joined our local 9/12 Project, and As A Mom and the TEA Party of Tampa Bay."
Via email and Twitter, Rebecca started sharing information, organizing, paying more attention to what was happening. She took early retirement in 2010 to stay home with her son (Benjamin - a great name, am I right?), and gave birth to another young son (Jameson) last May.
"You see, I now have *much* more to think about in regards to the future of our country," Rebecca said, and happily so. She redoubled her efforts, achieving a level of engagement in politics she'd never had before, and as you all know, Florida's Senate race was ground zero for this movement.
"Casting my vote for Marco Rubio in the primary and then again in the general gave me this amazing feeling of accomplishment," Rebecca said. "I felt like we had done it. First, when he beat Crist for the Republican nod. When he won the seat, I felt like I had finally been able to cast a vote for someone I *believed* in, instead of just choosing the least worst one."
"2010 was a real turning point for me. I watched the midterm election results as we won the House with some good, solid conservatives and I felt so proud and accomplished. I felt like we - the TEA Party, my mommy friends, ME - we had made a difference," Rebecca said. "We were helping to put our country back on the right path, and return to the ideals of our founders."
"Then came 2011," Rebecca says, and her mood clouds. "It felt like every time I turned around, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell were selling us out, hanging our Tea Party freshmen out to dry, and doing it for no apparent reason."
She's unsure why this is. "Are they idiots, or just the worst chess/poker players ever? Every time they have an opportunity to limit government, reduce taxes, etc. they blow it."
And all the while, President Obama is able to "look like he's trying, he's really trying, but the 'Republican Controlled Congress' keeps getting in the way. The debt ceiling increases. The lack of a budget. The 30-odd House passed bills that Harry Reid won't allow a vote on." Indeed, Rebecca is so infuriated with the Congress' inability to carry their message or push back, she thinks a third party might be needed.
"I almost feel as though there needs to be a new party, a truly conservative party, that really represents us. Sometimes I feel like the GOP is more interested in protecting their jobs than in promoting conservative ideals. At least, that's what Boehner and McConnell make me think," Rebecca said. "Why can't we have a party full of Rubios - candidates who believe in American exceptionalism and limited government, and do so unapologetically? Why do we have to have so many squishes?"
The Republican presidential stakes kicked in, and Rebecca engaged. Her hopes rise with Rick Perry's entrance, but then "he gets hammered for stupid things, and drops." She thought about Herman Cain, "but his lack of campaign management was disconcerting." She never really thought Bachmann would make it to Florida, and says "Erick Erickson has educated me too much to cast a vote for Rick Santorum." She considers Ron Paul's views right on a number of accounts, but thinks his foreign policy is "crazy."
"So here I am, supporting Newt Gingrich," Rebecca says. "I'm not in love with Newt, but I trust him more to stay true to conservative ideals. The guy pushed Clinton right, for goodness sake. I only trust Mitt to stay true to himself."
So, Rebecca, about Mitt: why not Romney this time?
"I don't trust him, and I don't think he can win. He is utterly unaware of how offensive his disconnect with the average American is. He drops $10K bets like it's nothing. He thinks $342,000 isn't very much to make in a year," Rebecca said. "I don't begrudge him his wealth - he worked for it and earned it and that is admirable. But I hate his lack of awareness of how super-wealthy he is. His flip-flops are legendary."
"Oh, and he invented Obamacare."
"I see a Romney nomination causing Tea Partiers like me to tune out. We are already disheartened by the congressional leadership. Romney will be the final nail in the coffin. He is completely uninspiring, and is everything we have been working so hard to defeat within the GOP," Rebecca said. "Don't even get me started on that Bain Capital picture. Ugh. There is no way he can win. And I don't want to have to defend him while he tries."
"What is the point in becoming educated on candidates and politics, arguing with my friends, taking the time away from my family - to end up with the guy McCain can't even look in the eye. Why bother?" Rebecca says. "Obviously the "establishment" has already decided it's Romney's turn, and to hell with what we want. I feel like I'm being patted on the head and told "Now go vote for Romney like a good little girl. We know what's best."... I don't even do that to my 3-year-old. It's insulting. It doesn't make me want to campaign for him."
"It honestly makes me want to skip the election, but Obama scares me too much to do that. I do think a Romney presidency will hurt the GOP brand though, and make it hard for a real conservative to have a shot," Rebecca said. "I feel like this is so similar to our 2010 Senate race. Romney is the Crist candidate, loved by many and backed by the establishment. But we have no Rubio. Crist would have been an easy win. He was a liked governor. Without Rubio, he would have easily won the seat. Just because we don't have a Rubio in this race doesn't mean we need to settle for a Crist."
Rebecca feels pressure, among more longstanding Republicans, to get on board the idea of Romney. But she says she's more likely to disengage. This is part of my overall concern: where cycles of political strife often include longtime activists bemoaning flawed nominees (as we saw in 2008 with McCain, and 1996 with Dole) and threatening to walk away, these are paid professionals who have been actively engaged in politics for decades. The Tea Party has a much shorter timeframe of engagement, which may indicate they are more likely to return to their previously disenfranchised state.
"It's like [Republicans] think because I don't eat, sleep and breathe politics, I can't make an informed decision - it must be emotional. My guy lost so I don't want your guy to win. When really I just don't think your guy is the best guy for the job," Rebecca said. "I can easily see a decreased Tea Party voter turn out if Romney is the nominee. I know political pundits may find this hard to believe, but not everyone's life revolves around elections. Are they important? Yes. Should people vote? Absolutely. But LIFE happens."
Rebecca tabulates her schedule for tomorrow, Florida's election day - a typical Tuesday for her household. She flies solo nearly all day, and she's never voted early. Husband's breakfast/lunch packed. Get her two boys up. Breakfast/lunch packed for them. Thirty minutes to Kindermusik, all morning there. Home early afternoon, already late for their naps. Errands, an abbreviated playtime. Dinner, baths, bed. Just voting, she says, is nearly impossible with two youngsters during the day lest naptimes and eating schedules be disrupted, and there's no way she can even attempt to get it done with both kids after about 5 because of the after-work crowds. But she'll still do it.
"I will be voting this Tuesday. I will make it fit into my schedule. I feel like my vote matters right now," Rebecca said. "But can you see how I might not make it a priority if I feel like either my vote doesn't matter, or if I don't feel like the candidate I'm voting for will be much different then what we have? Can you see how life may take precedence over casting an uninspired vote? I can't be alone in this thought process, and if enough people feel this way (and I think they will) it will be catastrophic for Romney and really very bad down-ticket as well."
Will the Tea Party remain engaged in a party led by Romney, Boehner, and McConnell? Rebecca thinks we are about to find out.
"I feel like the people who live politics just don't understand those of us who don't. I am a self-identified political junkie. I am enthralled this cycle with how things change so quickly, and I am trying to stay very informed. But I have to be honest, my time is limited. My family, my boys are my everything. Being informed takes time away from them," she says, whether it's engaging online, organizing activist responses, pushing back their naps to attend a rally.
"If I don't feel like I'm making a difference, where is my incentive to take that time from them?" Rebecca asks.
How Republicans answer her, and the concerns of those like her, may decide their future as a party in 2012 and beyond.