Tea, Dr. Paul?

Bookmark and Share     The Tea Party movement is unpredictable.  The Republican establishment has tried to control it.  Conservative commentators have tried to direct it.  It continues to roll on in its own direction.  Being a popular movement, it has far more to do with the feelings and situation of average people: people who feel betrayed by both parties.  Generally it falls within the Republican, Libertarian and Constitution parties, but for all practical purposes its greatest impact is on the Republican Party.

Sarah Palin has tried to brand herself as its candidate in 2012, but she’s soured on some for her endorsement of John McCain in the Arizona primary over a true Tea Partier.  The other front runners haven’t tried to attach themselves to the movement yet, but they’ve tried to echo it.  Since no one knows if it will last until 2012, the majority of front runners don’t want to tie themselves to it.  It could evaporate after the 2010 election cycle, particularly if the economy improves.  If the economy stays weak or worsens, the Tea Party movement will determine both the Republican nominee in 2012 and the Presidency.

That raises the question of Ron Paul.  If there is any candidate the original Tea Partiers of 2007-08 supported more than others it was Ron Paul.  At the time, the Tea Party was mainly against TARP which most of the Republican Presidential aspirants supported.  As the Tea Party movement has grown, it has attracted many people who grew disillusioned by the Stimulus and Health Care bills.  It is a far more diverse group than it was in the beginning.  Once dominated by Ron Paul supporters, it now has Palin, Romney, Huckabee, Jindal, Barbour, Christie and a host of other supporters – most of whom had held their nose and voted for McCain over Obama in 2008.

The core of the Tea Party is split between two groups: the original members and the 9-12 people.  Glenn Beck had been on the outside looking in at the end of the Bush Presidency.  He was one of the few who argued against the TARP program.  He started publicly supporting the Tea Partiers and his followers (9-12 Project people) started to join in.  His key note address to CPAC signaled the shift of the conservative base away from the party leadership towards the Tea Party movement.  Since then, established party leaders have faced challenges from the right in primaries and some of the Presidential hopefuls have gone unusually quiet rather than take sides and risk their futures.

That brings us back to Ron Paul.  Ron Paul was also on the outside looking in during the 2008 primary.  He and the infant Tea Party were considered a bit loony.  The main stream media treated his campaign like a joke and the Republican Party leadership treated it like a cross between lunacy and treason.  Much has changed in two years.  The fringe Tea Party is now the majority according to polls of registered Republicans.  Glenn Beck has grown in influence and has thrown his entire weight and considerable following in with the Tea Party.  He has also grown increasingly closer to Ron Paul’s political position.  They first agreed on the economy.  Then they agreed on government domestic programs.  Now they agree on foreign policy: the one area in which Ron Paul had been excoriated by the Republican establishment in 2008 as being ‘soft on terror’.

The largest group of self-identified Tea Partiers is most influenced by a man who now agrees almost entirely with Ron Paul’s positions.  The original members of the Tea Party who still organize most of the local events already favored Ron Paul.  While nothing in politics is ever certain for any length of time, it isn’t a reach to say that Ron Paul has gone from fringe candidate to serious contender.  Should the Tea Party sentiment continue to 2012 and Beck maintain his influence, Ron Paul may find himself the favorite.  As other candidates try to cozy up to the Tea Party and claim to have always supported it, Paul will be in the unique position of using their 2008 attacks on him against them.  That could be real trouble for any candidate that ran in 2008, particularly Mitt Romney who would have to explain both his support for TARP and his support of State health care while governor of Massachusetts.

Polls taken of self-identified Tea Partiers already have Sarah Palin and Ron Paul in a statistical dead heat for their preferred Presidential candidate.  Again, enter Glenn Beck who is very linked with Palin and will be co-hosting the “Restoring Honor Rally”.  Palin is definitely working hard to make herself the Tea Party favorite and betting the bank on the movement both defining and deciding the 2012 election.  There’s just something about Palin that gives the impression that she may be the current Prom Queen, but will not end up being the Bride a couple years from now.  Like Rudy Giuliani’s 9/11 popularity did by 2004, her popularity seems likely to fade when people just can’t quite see her as “Presidential”.  Just as Giuliani was considered a front runner by many and even did well in polls right up to the primaries but then suddenly collapsed in failure, Palin is this cycle’s ‘crush’ and will likely also look good right up to 2012 before collapsing completely.

But who will the Palin supporters vote for when they find themselves unable to check her name once in the voting booth?  In 2008, Giuliani supporters broke mainly for the ideologically similar but more ‘electable’ McCain and secondarily for Romney (which had more to do with geography than ideology).  Will the Palin supporters break mainly for Ron Paul then in 2012 or will they go for another candidate who slides up to the Tea Party movement between now and 2012 who is more ‘electable’ than Ron Paul?  Or will Ron Paul shake the ‘unelectable’ label now that the prevailing politics have shifted to his position?  It’s anyone’s guess.

One thing is certain: Ron Paul isn’t on the fringe anymore.  If he doesn’t win the nomination, he will certainly be a major factor in who does.  More and more Republican Presidential hopefuls and even some democratic strategists are sounding a lot like Ron Paul.  It may be a safe bet that Ron Paul won’t win the nomination but that someone who sounds a lot like him will.  Ron Paul would then be remembered as a kind of Goldwater-like figure, but someone else would be the next Reagan.  But, as I stated at the beginning of this piece: the Tea Party movement is unpredictable.  It is certainly well within the realm of possibility that Ron Paul will be drinking tea in the Oval Office.

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