Democrats are taking aim at the tea party movement. In a recent fund-raising email, the Democratic National Committee called those who attend tea party events "narrow minded . . . nut jobs" and "vile two-bit wing-nuts." Democratic leaders routinely denigrate tea party participants and President Barack Obama dismisses them as an extremist "strain [that] has existed in politics for a long time."
But that's not true. Democrats are attacking the tea party movement because it is a new force that's bringing millions of here-to-fore unengaged Democrats, independents and Republicans into the political arena. If there's something a ruling party doesn't like, it's a new political player converting spectators into participants.
The Democrats are particularly concerned because the No. 1 target of the tea partiers—ObamaCare—is not rising in public opinion polls. It remains as unpopular as before it was jammed through Congress.
The president's popularity briefly increased after health-care reform passed but has since fallen back below 50%. Also, the generic ballot, a measure of support for each party, indicates that the GOP could win a large congressional victory this fall.
The White House's promised campaign to sell its health-care reforms is unlikely to pay off. Mr. Obama delivered 58 speeches on health care in the 51 weeks leading up to Congress's passage of ObamaCare and was still unable to halt a slide in public opinion against his reforms. What new can he say in the 31 weeks before Election Day?
The president will speak against a background of bad news about health-care reform. For example, already 3,500 companies are considering dropping or reducing the drug coverage they offer hundreds of thousands of retirees because ObamaCare changes the tax status of those benefits.
If insurance premiums now rise and states push back against ObamaCare's expensive Medicaid expansion, Mr. Obama could be speaking into a fierce wind.
To maintain their influence, tea partiers will have to maintain their current energy and concern over health care and federal spending.
I suggest that to do that tea partiers design a citizen's pledge and then ask friends and neighbors to sign it with them. The pledge should make five concrete commitments.
The first would be to educate themselves about the key issues of health care, spending, deficits and the economy. The second commitment would be to ascertain with certainty where their candidates for the U.S. Senate and House stand on these issues.
The third would be for each signatory to agree that they will register and then vote this fall for candidates they personally believe best represent their views on these issues.
Such a pledge would also draw on the tea party movement's record of spontaneous growth with a fourth commitment that each signatory make a manageable list of 10 to 25 people whom they would individually approach to take the pledge.
The fifth and final commitment would be that each signatory personally see that each of their recruits register and vote.
These steps would build on the natural inclination of tea party groups to use social networking tools and draw on the energy of people fresh to politics looking for ways to affect the country's direction.
But tea partiers will have to do more than surf discontent with the Obama administration's policies. They will also have to coalesce around a positive agenda.
Some political leaders, like Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), have offered good ideas (see his "Roadmap for America's Future"). Good ideas are also being generated by conservative think tanks, like the Heritage Foundation with its new publication, "The Patriot's Guide: What You Can Do for Your Country." This can be downloaded from Heritage.org.
Politicians who hope to appeal to tea partiers must offer solutions that are heartfelt and well thought out. Tea party members may be new to politics, but they have a keen instinct for what's authentic. Attempts to pander will fall flat.
The tea party movement must also distance itself from the "birthers" who insist Mr. Obama wasn't born in the U.S., the 9/11 deniers, and other conspiracy fans who make wild comments the media will seize on to undermine the movement's credibility.
The unhinged quality of the White House and the DNC attacks show that they understand how much the tea party movement can affect this year's elections. Now is the time for the movement to ensure its energy—and influence—stay high.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, March 31, 2010.