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Monday, February 15, 2010

Perot Redux: Independent Voters and the Tea Party Movement

I recently was invited to a Tea Party meeting in the middle of New Jersey. Former Republican gubernatorial candidate Steve Lonegan was scheduled to speak, so I thought this was worth the long drive out to Wayne, NJ.

The event and the atmosphere immediately evoked memories of the movement that arose, virtually out of thin air, in 1992 and coalesced around the presidential campaign of H. Ross Perot. Right down to the same smell of animal fat, in the burger, steak, fries and beer joint known as Gabriel's (I guess this is fine dining right off of Interstate 80), I could see why all these thin, gray-haired, cantankerous folks seemed at home. No suits in attendance; this was a blue-collar, retiree crowd whose idea of a fine beer was Budweiser. No microbrews here. These people were polite, but here to protest. And they don't take kindly to being bossed around.
Jersey has a new governor, Chris Christie. I sense from the Tea Party crowd that Christie is one misstep away from becoming the new target-du-jour of the Tea Party movement.

Indeed, Lonegan came to stoke this sentiment. He made clear that while he remains a Republican, if Republican elected officials don't remain true to fiscal issues (read: lower taxes and controlling government budgets), he believes in either challenging those officials in primaries or forming a third party.

Lonegan: "I believe in primaries."

The history of the 1992 reform movements shows that would-be reformers must be genuine and consistent. The 1992 campaign season gave rise to several reform movements, including the Concord Coalition and Third Millenium. The New Jersey event evokes comparisons, because all seemed to attract people who put principles first and people/candidates second. Indeed, some of Perot's most ardent 1992 supporters became the most vociferous opponents of his seemingly handpicked puppets when he sought to create, and then control, the national Reform Party.

Many Republicans will seek to appeal to and get the endorsement of so-called Tea Party groups. However, the question must be raised whether these candidates will have the fortitude (or honesty) to remain true to the rhetoric. The wave of popular anger may turn out many Democrats and some Republicans too; however, this tide, being more principle-based than personality-based, threatens to become a strong, anti-incumbent movement that will seek as complete a regime change as possible in the 2010 elections. These Tea Party types will not support or vote for a candidate merely because of party identification; they've already made the break.

Independent voters fall into several categories. Some have no allegiance to a party, others may lean towards the conservative or liberal "poles" but still not identify with or even have any preference for a party, and yet others may have a preference but be actively suspicious enough that they will cast protest votes in order to "send a message." This class of voters does have one unifying theme: character matters. Values and principles matter. Being trustworthy matters.

The longer the economic downturn continues (and it is already the most severe since the Great Depression), the deeper and more intractable the anger will be and the more formidable will be the reformers and protestors. Republicans who ignore the primacy of character and principles may be making a huge and career-ending mistake by treating the Tea Party crowd as unsophisticate simpletons. Democrats who make the same mistake may be surprised when no-name opponents beat them riding a wave of anti-incumbent sentiment. This crowd would be happy to shut down state capitols and Washington, DC to send its message.
The atmosphere is rarely conducive for a third party, but the ingredients for a perfect storm are here and in greater quantities than in 1992. In this environment, no incumbent is safe, in either party. For now, we have post-party conditions which make handicapping any race difficult. The policy implications will be that most significant legislation will be dead on arrival for at least this year.

Eric Dixon is an attorney who advises campaigns, party committees and candidates on ballot access laws and has successfully managed many petition drives. Eric Dixon engages in crisis management and other matters. Mr. Dixon cautions readers that this article is not legal advice. Mr. Dixon may be contacted for further comment through edixon@NYBusinessCounsel.com, or at 917-696-2442.


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