Tea time

February 6, 2010

I’ve been observing the Tea Party movement since last year. In recent years I’ve found it difficult to be involved in political activism. My life is occupied with other responsibilities and pursuits. However, I’ve felt an affinity with the concerns of the Tea Partiers, and have been supportive of them “from afar”. I, too, am worried about the runaway spending of the federal government. I am also bothered by the government seeming to not be concerned with solving real problems. Instead the goal of every proposal has been to satisfy certain constituencies, as if that’s good enough.

I watched some TV coverage of the first day of the Tea Party convention in Nashville, TN. It gave me this feeling of deja vu. I was a supporter and member of United We Stand America (UWSA) beginning in 1992. Ross Perot was its figurehead and lead supporter. The history of it seemed to begin with a “throw the bums out” grassroots movement that began in 1989, or thereabouts. It was just in its nascent stages then. People were inspired by a Larry King Live interview with Perot in February 1992, and a grassroots “draft Perot for President” campaign began (I think it was called the Perot Petition Committee). He advocated higher taxes and cuts in spending in order to bring down the federal debt, which at the time was “only” $4 trillion. President Obama’s budget for next year almost equals that amount! Oh how far we’ve come! Anyway, back then we thought $4 trillion was an immense amount, too big to fathom. Perot advocated entitlements reform, to decrease their growth. He had read the projections of fiscal economists, which said that in the far off future there would only be two people working for every person retired, and that this would be unsustainable. We’re still on a collision course with that future.

He wanted to lower discretionary spending, and decrease the debt dramatically, because he foresaw the kind of events we’ve seen over the last 10 years. He wanted a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, with some caveats that would allow deficit spending only for specific circumstances, like war, or national emergencies (the latter has problems, though, because literally anything can be classified in law as an “emergency”). He used to talk about how there would be wars in the future, and that carrying a large debt load into that situation would mean trouble, because the government is forced into deficit spending in every war. Well, that’s the situation we’re in now.

At the time of Perot’s run in 1992, the Cold War had just ended. Conventional wisdom held that it was “the end of history”, and we could enjoy a “peace dividend” (never mind the Gulf War of 1991). Unfortunately our society decided to go for that myopic message (despite the World Trade Center bombing in 1993). So much for “the end of history”. Nevertheless, beginning in the mid-1990s, with a Democratic president and a Republican congress, the government was able to run budget surpluses and decrease the federal debt. Pressure from Perot voters, with our advocacy for reducing the federal debt, helped make that happen.

I listened to Tea Partiers talk to the media yesterday, and call in to C-SPAN. They sounded a lot like the Perot supporters I used to hear from, just in their general tone. The main thing that seems to drive the Tea Partiers, like the UWSA supporters of yesterday, is that they are alarmed at what the two major parties are doing in government, and above all else they want to stop it. Like the Tea Partiers, UWSA supporters were ridiculed for not supporting anything in specific, though Perot did outline some agenda areas he’d like to see addressed (part of which I’ve described above). Most UWSA members agreed with his agenda, for a time (though there was a major split in the movement over Perot’s opposition to the free trade agreements, NAFTA and later GATT). It seems like the politics are different, though. From what I’ve been hearing, the main hope of the Tea Partiers is to bring the Republican Party back to a conservative agenda. UWSA was not focused on one party in this way. We used to say that there was no difference between the two parties. There’s also more of a focus on constitutional, limited government among the Tea Partiers, one that spends less and taxes less. UWSA did not emphasize the Constitution, and was in favor of higher taxes, and cuts in spending, with the goal of reducing the federal debt.

The goal of the Tea Partiers is to make the political system come to them. UWSA had the same goal.

There’s a lot of speculation about what the Tea Partiers stand for, and whether they will form a third party. From where I sit, I think it’s good for the Tea Party movement to lack definition, to allow the people who are participating to be a part of an association like this, but one where they can have their own individual voices, even though there will be a temptation to say, “Let’s create an official organization with official representatives. Let’s define ourselves.” If the Tea Party movement goes that direction, I see it falling apart. We went through that with UWSA. Beginning in 1993 we started getting “directives” from the UWSA headquarters in Dallas, TX for government policy issues to work on. It was framed as a way to promote a united message. After all, we were calling ourselves “United We Stand”. The problem was the membership was never asked about the details. I thought this was fine, since I supported these goals anyway, but other members resented it. This, along with other public advocacy activities that Perot subsequently undertook led to a schism within UWSA. I think an advantage that the Tea Party movement has had is it began in a leaderless way. People have come together around some principles, rather than in support of an individual who people believe embodies those principles.

Given actions that the government took subsequently, starting in 1993, we felt like we weren’t having a big enough influence. So in 1995/96, the Reform Party was formed. We were going to run political candidates. We actually had a contest for the presidential nomination between Ross Perot and former Colorado governor Richard Lamm. There was a lot of controversy about that. There were complaints about a corrupt nomination process. People who had been with the movement for a long time wondered whether Lamm was loyal to the party or whether he was a Democratic stalking horse. In any case Perot was picked as the nominee, and he did worse than the time before, getting 8% of the popular vote. The big difference was Perot was not included in the presidential debates, as he was in 1992. He got a big boost out of those then.

Forming the party was probably the worst thing we did. Maybe I lack perspective, since I was more deeply involved with the Reform Party than with UWSA. There was constant infighting amongst ourselves, mainly because a political party is just a vehicle, and it must be this way legally. We, the Perot supporters, naively thought that since we had founded the party we could control the platform, and be careful enough to select candidates who represented what we wanted implemented in our government. It turned out there was more opportunity to control the agenda we wanted to promote with UWSA than there was with the party. Once the party was founded, any candidate, no matter their agenda–even if it was diametrically opposed to what we set out to do, could come in with his/her supporters and just take the party over. I eventually woke up to this fact, and saw some of the wisdom in this structure for parties, but there were many other “old timers” who resisted this to the bitter end.

A persistent problem we had from 1992 onward was we knew what we wanted to do, but we were ignorant and naive about what political structure would best advance that agenda. We tried UWSA, which was a 501(c)(3) educational organization, but we ran into problems when we wanted to endorse candidates for office. It was illegal for a 501(c)(3) organization to do that. Later we wanted to push forward a particular agenda, rather like an interest group, but we wanted to run candidates for office, to exert power. So the next “form” we took was as a political party, which is not designed for agenda advocacy. It’s basically a structure for coalition building, but according to the rules it’s not allowed to dictate what the coalition represents. The coalition that gathers the most power within the party at any given time gets to do that. You don’t own it just because you created it. You have to politically organize large numbers of supporters for the agenda you support, and you have to do that consistently, not just when you’re excited about a cause, like the Tea Partiers are now, or around elections, if you want the party to maintain a direction and purpose that you support. To do that, you need to be a consistent presence in the media, and you need supportive organizations. To do all this you need lots of money. And of course everyone who joins in with you has to understand and support the rationale for your cause. It’s a lot of work!

The other thing that was poisonous to the Reform Party effort, particularly after the 1996 presidential race, is that Perot had earned enough votes for the party to qualify for FEC money for the next presidential race in 2000. This was one of the goals, but it created monsters out of otherwise nice, decent people. I can’t remember the amount. It might’ve been $8 million. This started a gold rush for opportunists to come in and compete for power positions within the party. We started breaking up into factions. It was becoming a chaotic mess. We spent a significant amount of our time fighting each other rather than focusing on what we all came together to do originally, which was to reform government fiscal policy. It all basically ended in 2000, when Pat Buchanan ran for the party’s presidential nomination, along with someone who used to run for president regularly in the Natural Law Party. The party split in two at the national level, and had thereby mortally wounded itself. I saw people I had once trusted do the most despicable things. The corruption that was occurring was so obvious it was like witnessing Tammany Hall in the 20th century, though with no government power. It actually made the corruption in the two major parties look civilized by comparison. I thought, “You know what? It’s a good thing that not too many of our people have been elected to public office. They’d be worse than the people who are there now!” I did not think this of Buchanan, who I thought ran a good campaign for the nomination, putting in the sweat equity required to get it. Despite all of the chaos within the party, Buchanan was legally recognized as the Reform Party nominee by the FEC, and his campaign was given the $8 million in FEC money, but he limped over the finish line with 0% of the popular vote. The split in the party was one of the most heart-wrenching things I had experienced in my whole life.

As I think back on it now, I wonder why we didn’t organize ourselves as an interest group, or perhaps split between that and a 501(c)(3), with some choosing political advocacy, and some choosing to just educate. Given what we wanted to do this would’ve made so much more sense. Of course, we didn’t think of forming an interest group because we were AGAINST political interest groups! We used to complain about them constantly. We said we wanted to get beyond interest group politics, but legally it would’ve allowed us to do what we really wanted.

I’m telling this story so that Tea Partiers in particular can read it and learn from our mistakes, both in terms of organizing an association, and forming a third party. I would say to them, that beyond the conventional concerns about splitting the presidential vote down the road, they should approach the idea of forming a third party with extreme caution. From my experience, forming the party was the death knell of the reform movement. It became a huge distraction after 1996, and in the end it exhausted us. It was the best thing that could’ve happened to the powers that be in the Democratic and Republican parties, because we became so distracted with our own “inside baseball” political infighting that it removed our influence from the national stage.