Reagan from the grave: ‘Keep it simple or the party’s over’

Contributed by Shell Suber*

In their most recent articles, Henry Olson of National Affairs and David Broder of the Washington Post lay out the road to victory… or irrelevance… for the Tea Party.

Olson’s piece studies the Tea Party in context of previous American populist movements concluding that, while the movement has clearly tapped into a genuine and potentially productive frustration with tax and spending policies, its future may depend on the language their members use in the next critical few months.

Olson explains Ronald Reagan, the modern master of tenderly nurturing populism into authentic, workable political will, succeeded where his mentor Barry Goldwater did not largely because of his skills as a gentle orator.

Olson writes: “The desire to avoid being tarred as an extremist did not mean, however, that Reagan would avoid blunt language. Throughout his career, he minced no words when describing the threats to freedom and prosperity posed by unlimited, centralized government. He clearly defined his adversary: big government run by faceless bureaucrats who cared more for their schemes than the people’s welfare. Nor could the man who called the Soviet Union “the evil empire” and defined the ending of the Cold War as “we win, they lose” be said to have dissembled on foreign policy. But when it came to his domestic opponents, Reagan avoided the classical-populist trap of vilifying his political adversaries as outright enemies.”

Having made their initial leap into the political waters and mere months from their first real election cycle, this is a critical time in the evolution of the Tea Party. So, with sincere apologies to our 40th president, let this be a warning to the Tea Party from the spirit of Ronald Reagan:


  • Choose your tone carefully. Be firm but don’t use language that makes you sound like a bitter, angry hate-monger or a wild eyed anarchist. Keep it simple and make your case calmly and sincerely. Do you recall hearing me raise my voice?
  • Don’t vilify those you wish to persuade. You are not “at war” with those who disagree with you. You aren’t going to take up arms against your political opponents – fellow Americans – no matter what Sharon Angle says. Avoid battlefield analogies, especially when we have real soldiers in real battles. It’s disrespectful. Instead, look on yours as a crusade of persuasion. Remember, every rival is a potential ally… and potential voter.
  • Keep it simple. You started with a message so clear and uncomplicated it would fit on a bumper sticker: “TEA = Taxed Enough Already.” It brilliantly evoked the memory early America’s most famous tax revolt and left no one confused as to what you wanted: lower taxes with spending to match – the fiscal responsibility practiced by any rational person with a checkbook. Now KEEP it that simple. Despite the temptations to do so, don’t wander off into debates on immigration reform, abortion or foreign policy. You are about tax and spending reform. That’s all. And that’s enough.
  • Grow leaders, not celebrities. The Tea Party movement sprang up largely on its own, without a rallying around an icon. In this way it has avoided one of the great pitfalls of modern populist movements in America: becoming a cult of personality [al la Goldwater, Ross Perot, or Ralph Nader] whose future depends on public sentiment toward (and patience for) a celebrity. Trust me, I worked in Hollywood. Fame is fleeting and fickle and if you want your cause to endure, don’t rally around it for want of a leader. Rather, establish within your ranks an infrastructure guided by committed visionaries who are fiercely protective of the Tea Party’s straightforward message and uncomplicated purpose.

The Tea Party will flourish – or vanish – based on its conduct between now and November. Voters will be watching and listening.

* Reposted from The Felkel Group’s blog, The Political Entrepreneur

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3 Comments to “Reagan from the grave: ‘Keep it simple or the party’s over’”

  1. Good Article Shell. Did you write this?

  2. Vince, I wrote this for The Political Entrepreneur (http://politicalentrepreneur.wordpress.com/), the blog of The Felkel Group. It was posted there yesterday.

    Of note check out these two stories out today that demonstrate how the Tea Party is wandering dangerously close to irrelevance by becoming embroiled in non-budget related controversies.

    Read Cheryl Corley’s article today on NPR: “NAACP, Tea Party Volley Over Racism Claims” (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128505089) and this more local story from The State’s SC Politics Today: “Tea Party takes aim at Graham over Kagan” (http://thestatecom.typepad.com/ygatoday/2010/07/tea-party-takes-aim-at-graham-over-kagan.html).

    I have been working with political activists and grassroots movements for twenty years and I know how hard it is for passionate, committed people to keep their mouth shut when the have something they wish to say, but if the Tea Party wants last more than a year or so, they simply must find the internal discipline to stay out of issues unrelated to taxes and spending. The Tea Party must remember that the ultimate audience is the American people and if I have learned anything about the American People, it is that they will give you about 30 seconds to explain who you are before they make up their minds about you. Once that is done you can forget about altering that opinion.

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