What the 2010 elections and the 2012 primaries both tell us sharply is that having a vibrant grass-roots is not the same as having political leaders. Often when the base is boiling, that's when the party is unable to bring anyone to the table except the halfwits and leaders so uninspiring that no amount of hair pulling cognition can make you understand how they made it to the endgame.
We're not as badly off today as we were then, even if our frontrunner is the House Speaker from back then, but we're stuck choosing between established candidates who aren't very conservative and conservative candidates with little experience or poor electability.
The Tea Party was half the equation, a grass roots movement setting the tone and providing the boots to promote change. But the other half of the equation, the political leaders who can actually move the agenda forward are still missing. And they have been missing for a very long time now.
Reagan was in some ways a fluke, merging political savvy and conservative beliefs with the training of a radio announcer and movie star. Finding a man or woman who can merge all three is a real challenge, but we're having trouble finding even one out of three.
Television and video have created a hunger for striking and inspiring leaders that the political classes can't fill. JFK was virtually bred for the task with a prominent and powerful family building a myth around him that would likely not have survived had he not been assassinated. Clinton was a charming and a pathologically dishonest state governor from a state that had never sent a governor to the White House. Obama was dug up under strange circumstances on the margins of Chicago politics.
Republicans naturally should have looked to the charismatic governor of a major state, but they came up with rather few candidates, aside from Christie and Perry. Both are plausible candidates, but neither of them were very conservative. That left Pawlenty as the Lamar Alexander candidate and Romney as the likely candidate, with everyone else scrambling to be the Anti-Romney candidate in a political demolition derby.
What the derby revealed is that the new conservative media that has sprung up to counter the mainstream media is very eager to turn on actual conservative candidates for its own entertainment and that few of the candidates who can survive a mistake or two are likely to be very conservative. And none of them are particularly inspiring.
The reason for that is that the country really has no conservative party, it has a party that fills that role because it hasn't found a better one. The Republican Party isn't conservative out of principles, it's conservative by default. It's conservative because the Democratic Party has seized all the progressive ground leaving it with no choice but to fight a rearguard action against its insanity. The further left the Democratic Party has pushed, the further right the Republican Party has found itself driven, not because it is genuinely of the right, but because the cultural battles has created a sizable national demographic of people who want to fight for conservative cultural and economic values.
The Republican Party has never been comfortable with its newfound base, it is more comfortable discussing free trade agreements and tax cuts, than spending cuts and social values. It has a sizable number of politicians who can do both, but it has an equally sizable number of politicians who think that the party would be much better if it was a social club for the Chamber of Commerce and the Council on Foreign Relations.
The Tea Party makes them uneasy, and they don't like the people "clinging to their bibles and guns" anymore than Obama does. They know the value of finding a base and appealing to it, but they wish there was another base that they could appeal to. Pragmatic people who understood the value of free trade agreements as combined with cap and trade under a big federal package.
For every liberal Republican who reinvented himself as a Democrat, there are dozens who have stayed in the party while bemoaning what the party has turned into, and while they are a minority on election day, they are certainly not a minority in the mechanisms of the party and in deciding who gets moved up the ladder.
Aspiration is inspirational. In 2008 the Democrats presented Obama's rise to power as an expression of the American Dream. Over the past years, what his rise has really demonstrated is how that dream has been hijacked and perverted into a mockery of itself. But the best way to fight that isn't with a denunciation, but with an alternative.
Some saw that alternative in Cain, his business experience as an authentic alternative of aspiration. Some see it in Perry's Texas roots and business growth. And some see it in Gingrich as the happy warrior against the left. But none of them have really embodied it or expressed it, and the alternative is Romney.
Romney is the gray man. The man who expresses the party's ambitious shiftlessness, its lack of principles and its conservatism of complacency. Romney challenges no one and perturbs no one. He is the embodiment of a different kind of American dream, where everyone gets along and men in suits handle everything. It is how the country actually was run, but it's inspiring to absolutely no one.
The professional class of the Republican Party is a reality, but it's not inspiring to anyone. Romney's only real platform is the one that I saw on a plumber's van in Brooklyn. "Do it yourself and then call us." After the progressives and the Tea Party have had their shot, the man in the three-piece suit will step forward and fix the leak. It's an appealing image to many liberal Republicans who think that their party has been hijacked by extremists and lunatics, but it's at odds with the reality that the country's problems were created by the moderates.
It is the moderates who chose to ignore the consequences of the spending tsunami, who compromised their way out of every political quarrel with barrels of pork, and who will compromise their way out of this one with the same product, even when it's their bipartisan spending that is at the root of the problem.
Change is the one thing that everyone agrees we need and it's the one thing that Romney can't offer. The moderates don't want change, they want everyone to stop yelling, go back to their corners and think about how we can work out another agreement that ignores the problem but breaks the deadlock. And yet we need change. We have compromised from one disaster to another and moderated our way into immoderation.
The Republican Party has been lagging behind its base for a while now, and as its politicians make their half-sincere efforts to catch up and all sorts of people jump on the grass-roots bandwagon, the challenge is to sort them out in order to find leaders.
Leaders are not only good speakers, they are people with principles, but similarly they are not deeply committed, they are capable of communicating that commitment to others. A leader does not simply believe, he embodies that belief and turns it into a vital force that holds a compelling appeal. That appeal will have its limits and the best leader wields a balance of deep principles and broad appeal.
Rome wasn't burned in a day and Washington D.C. won't change in a few years. We did a lot in 2010 and we can hope that what we do will bear fruit in 2012, but whatever happens this election, we have to look to the work of the future. There is a limited time frame in which the country can be turned around and doing it at the political level will require leaders. Not simply people with principles who can't function on the big stage or established politicians who will say anything for a two percent rise in the polls. Leaders.
If the Tea Party or any conservative grass roots movement is to be effective, it will need to find those people and support them. That's not an easy task, the last two years remind us that not everyone who speaks well or says the right things or is a political outsider is also going to be a good candidate... but that is also part of the process.
The political class have created this disaster and they cannot be expected to get us out of it, at best all they can do is slow it down and buy us some time. And if they can do that, then we can use the time to replace them.