Tea Party prioritizes tone over substance in GOP candidates

Politics has a cruel sense of humor. In the blink of an eye, heroes can become villains. Pariahs can become prophets. And populist movements can become ghosts of their former selves, shriveling from within as powerful interest groups mold them for their own purposes.

The Tea Party is a prime example of this gradual decay. Its waning influence over the Republican Party is the untold political story of the year. In just months, the Tea Party has gone from potential kingmaker to indecisive nuisance as supporters have struggled to unite behind a single candidate.

No one seemed to be good enough. Michele Bachmann was too wacky. Donald Trump was too pompous. Rick Perry was too dumb. Herman Cain was too adulterous. And Rick Santorum was too self-righteous.

So they chose no one.

The failure of the Tea Party to choose their standard-bearer, behind whom they could throw their collective weight, has resulted in the primary field being whittled down to the two least conservative candidates. How un-conservative? Well, you might even go as far as to call some of the frontrunners’ previous positions — dare I say — socialistic.

Let’s start with Mitt Romney, the favorite of establishment Republicans. Before Romney wanted to become president, he was a somewhat liberal Republican from Massachusetts. While running for office and while governor, Romney supported everything from the individual mandate to purchase health insurance, strict gun control laws and taxpayer-funded abortions — policies that are to the left of President Obama.

The “conservative” alternative to Romney is Newt Gingrich. Putting aside his blackened personal history, Gingrich has not been a strong advocate of limited government throughout his career. Until a few years ago, Gingrich still supported the individual mandate, a cap-and-trade system to limit carbon emissions, tax hikes during the Clinton years and an executive branch so powerful it could dissolve entire court systems for a single displeasing ruling.

Of course, Romney and Gingrich no longer hold these positions. They have both lurched to the right in recent years. But the timing and completeness of their reversals raises doubts about their authenticity. To put things in perspective, Romney and Gingrich have held their newfound conservative beliefs for less time than the iPod has been on sale or Justin Bieber has been alive.

As if to make up for their lackluster conservative credentials, Romney and Gingrich have doubled down and launched an increasingly bitter set of attacks against President Obama. Gingrich, ever the demagogic firebrand, has called Obama a “secular socialist” and the greatest threat facing America (so much for his promise to run a positive campaign, eh?). Romney has been stiffer with his criticisms — you might even say robotic — but he has not shied away from suggesting that Obama does not love America.

The Tea Party has eaten it all up. All thoughts of substance and ideological purity have been thrown to the winds. Romney and Gingrich say the same rude and disrespectful things about Obama that the Tea Party is thinking! What more is there to know?

The emphasis on tone is a bit odd. It strikes a discordant note with the Tea Party’s image of an issues-based, grassroots organization dedicated to limited government and lower taxes. Their darling candidates have not shared with them much ideological ground, but rather a seething hatred of Obama.

And it’s not just the current candidates. Even the candidates Tea Party activists are begging to jump into the race are anything but conservative. Take the bellicose Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, for example. His appeal has nothing to do with his own record, which is paper thin and much less conservative than most conservatives would like to admit. No, conservatives like Christie because he has developed a reputation for hurling insults at anyone who questions his ethics or recreational activities (something he has in common, I suppose, with the neighboring cast of “Jersey Shore”).

Taken in full, this year’s Republican primary looks like it will be the Tea Party’s undoing. Barring some drastic reversal of fortune, Romney will win the nomination. And that will spell doom for the Tea Party.

I don’t doubt that the majority of Tea Party members will support Romney in the general election. But that support will be subdued and reluctant. A bland technocrat like Romney will never be able to rouse the Tea Party’s burning passions and channel their partisan fervor. Romney can feign anger and hatred all he wants, but he will fail to connect on any meaningful level.

Decades from now, historians will look back on this primary and scratch their heads. How did the Tea Party mess things up so badly? They had the chance to be a major player in Republican politics for years to come. But they missed their big chance.

In elevating tone over substance, the Tea Party undermined its core message and allowed two flip-flopping moderates to rise to frontrunner status against their more conservative peers.

Such is the cruel humor of politics.

_Jason is a senior in Engineering and Business.___