‘Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed.”
Michelle Obama told us that on the campaign trail in 2008, and it is fair to say that her campaign promise has been kept.
It’s not just Republicans whose lives, and views of Barack Obama, have changed. Independents and Obama voters are feeling the effects of change as Obama prescribes it — change that rejects feedback, as has been clearly demonstrated by the dynamic we have seen from the White House and Congress in the last two years. In town hall after town hall, then tea party after tea party, and poll after poll, Americans would urge Obama to hit the brake on his General Motors–bailout car toward transformation, and we all know how the Democratic party responded. And that’s why everyone but the most ardent Democratic spinmeisters is expecting the other party to win big in November.
A commercial currently running titled “Mourning in America” — a twist on Ronald Reagan’s 1984 “Morning in America” ads — captures where many voters are: “There’s mourning in America. Today, 15 million men and women won’t have the opportunity to go to work. Businesses shuttered. Twenty-nine hundred families will have their homes foreclosed by nightfall. This afternoon 6,000 men and women will be married, each of their children to be born with a $30,000 share of the runaway national debt. Our government is now taking over the choices we once made in life.”
The commercial goes on to explain: “Under the leadership of President Obama, our country is fading, and weaker, and worse off. His policies were a grand experiment, policies that failed. This November, let’s choose a smaller, more caring government, one that remembers us.”
That government will be one that is responsive to citizens in a whole new way, if everyone who has been voicing concern stays — as the first lady would say — involved and informed.
There is more than a month to go, and no one should be measuring his drapes. But the tea party is moving into its next phase, one not dependent on all of its candidates’ winning. It’s the governing phase.
And that’s where the Pledge to America comes in. House Republicans released their governing agenda with less fanfare, but more humility and urgency, than the 1994 Contract with America. (I still have a Capitol-steps paperweight from that September in my office.) This time, Republicans went to a small business in Virginia to unveil the fruits of a months-long listening exercise.
The Pledge isn’t everything everyone wanted it to be. But it is a lot of good things. Ambitious things, even. And John Boehner, the presumptive speaker of the House, believes it is better because of the grassroots tea-party movement: “The Pledge to America was built by listening to the people, and that certainly includes the millions of Americans who are involved in the tea-party movement. I said earlier this year that Republicans wouldn’t try to co-opt the tea-party movement, but that we were going to listen to them, stand with them, and walk among them. I’ve been to a number of tea-party events around the country, and frankly I think the movement has been an incredibly healthy thing for our democracy.”
Doug Schoen, a Democrat and co-author of the book Mad as Hell, sees the tea party as “a third force in American politics. It is not organized . . . but it is as powerful as any third party could possibly be at this point in time.” He also doesn’t believe it’s going away. And Representative Boehner seems to agree: He may not be measuring the drapes, but he has the welcome mat out. Right after the unveiling of the Pledge, Boehner stopped by a tea party and said: “If the American people stay engaged, Congress will do exactly what you demand.”
That’s good civics and a winning strategy. As Republican pollster John McLaughlin points out: “The very significant majority of Republican voters agree with the tea party. You saw that in the January national poll we did for the National Review Institute. We’ve seen that in the Republican primaries. If Republican leaders listen to the voters, we will be fine. If they regress back to the big-government, inside-the-Beltway corruption that the Democratic party is captured by, then we’ll split our party. I believe we are listening to the voters and coincidentally winning.”
And the tea party is open to the outreach. Ryan Hecker, a member of the Houston Tea Party Society who helped organize the Contract from America earlier this year, believes that “November 3 is when the real job of the tea-party movement begins. We need to continue to press politicians and publicly hold them accountable if they falter. The Pledge to America has set real benchmarks that the tea-party movement can now effectively use to hold Republicans to their word.”
Tea-party enthusiasts inside the Beltway are also optimistic about the possibilities for a constructive working relationship between a Boehner-led House and the engaged grassroots. As Virginia Thomas, founder of Liberty Central (which, upon the Pledge’s introduction, encouraged Pledge grading on its site), tells me, it “just takes focus and some work.” And we’ve seen that people certainly have been up for that. “One of the conflicts between the post-Contract congressional leadership and the activist community,” Andrew Langer, president of the Institute for Liberty, remembers, “was when various elements of the Contract with America were compromised beyond recognition.” And that was with a less ambitious agenda than the activists have today. But Langer believes the GOP leaders have learned from their past mistakes. “We’re going to see a very different working relationship between Congress and the tea party.”
Washington works right when it considers itself accountable to the people who elected its officeholders. It will be accountable only when citizens demand that it be. As one Republican Hill aide puts it: “Americans in the tea-party movement need to stay engaged in order to make sure things like aggressive spending cuts get done. And elected leaders who want things like aggressive spending cuts need them to stay engaged.”
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column is available exclusively through United Media. For permission to reprint or excerpt this copyrighted material, please contact Carmen Puello.