There has been a lot of talk about combining the tea party movement with the Republican Party. And on a small scale, that seemed to happen last week in South Carolina after state GOP representatives agreed to create a "Tea Party Republicans" group to coordinate activities with tea partiers in Greenville and Spartanburg.
This week, however, those arrangements fell apart as some tea party groups dissented from the decision. Other attempts to draw tea party groups into formal alliances are running into similar difficulties. That is a good thing. The tea party movement will be more effective than it otherwise would be if it refuses to allow itself to become an appendage of either major political party.
The tea partiers have made an important splash because they are not yet another auxiliary to the Democratic or Republican parties. Like the pro-life and Second Amendment movements before it, the tea party movement will have a bigger impact if it holds the feet of politicians in both parties to its fire. Each party must know it can win or lose swing tea party voters.
The movement arose spontaneously as ordinary Americans reacted to a rising tide of federal spending and debt, growing federal power, and the too-cozy relationship between Washington and corporate America.
The bank bailout in the fall of 2008 may have lit the fuse, but the tea party movement began in earnest last April 15 with protests after congressional Democrats and the Obama administration unleashed a torrent of spending: the stimulus package, a swollen omnibus appropriations bill, and auto company bailouts. Democrats also raised the specter of new energy taxes when the House passed a cap-and-trade bill.
The movement's activity reached a fever pitch in August with raucous town hall meetings where senators and congressmen felt the burning-hot opposition of tea partiers to ObamaCare.
The tea parties have drawn into politics many Americans who were previously on the sidelines. In recent months, for example, I have met with local tea party leaders as varied as a grizzled Vietnam vet in his biker jacket, an oncology nurse from a small hospital, a woman at the car rental counter, scads of retired seniors (many of them war veterans), and a passel of stay-at-home moms, including one who organized a tea party protest in front of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's San Francisco office.
What these people have in common is a deep concern about the future of the country that their children and grandchildren will inherit. Many are also considering the next steps for their movement and often conflicted about its political course.
My advice to them is to keep their distance from any single party and instead influence both parties on debt, spending and an over-reaching federal government. Allowing third-party movements to co-opt the tea partiers' good name, which is happening in Nevada, will only serve to elect opponents of the tea party philosophy of low-taxes and fiscal restraint. It could also discredit the tea party movement.
A small fraction of the tea partiers' leadership are ambitious individuals who haven't been able to hold office in either the GOP or Democratic Party. Some are from fringe groups like the John Birch Society or the remnants of the LaRouchies. Others see the tea party movement as a recruiting pool for volunteers for Ron Paul's next presidential bid.
If tea party groups are to maximize their influence on policy, they must now begin the difficult task of disassociating themselves from cranks and conspiracy nuts. This includes 9/11 deniers, "birthers" who insist Barack Obama was not born in the U.S., and militia supporters espousing something vaguely close to armed rebellion.
The GOP is also better off if it foregoes any attempt to merge with the tea party movement. The GOP cannot possibly hope to control the dynamics of the highly decentralized galaxy of groups that make up the tea party movement. There will be troubling excesses and these will hurt Republicans if the party is formally associated with tea party groups.
We've seen the rugged populism akin to the tea party movement emerge in our nation's history before, often as a force for good and sometimes for ill. This episode is likely to make a positive impact if its members keep their political choices private while making their policy demands public.
The Republican Party and the tea party movement have many common interests right now. But they are, and should remain, distinct from one another. This is one instance when, if they merged, the sum would be less than the parts.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, February 17, 2010.