"The Tea Party" is running against history and time, and neither favors "The Tea Party."
If history is the best predictor of the future, and it usually is, "The Tea Party" will have a short shelf life. Beginning well before the Civil War, such movements have come and gone, including the Locofocos, Barnburners, Free Soil, Anti-Masonic, Know-Nothing, Populist, Progressive and a host of others. In 1948 it was Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrats; in 1968, George Wallace's American Independent Party; and in 1992, Ross Perot's Reform Party. History says that like all of those movements "The Tea Party" will have "one day in the sun."
These movements have lacked staying power, because America has a large, broad-based two-party system that absorbs them by adapting to their demands. For example, the Republicans and Richard Nixon captured George Wallace's movement by adopting a "Southern Strategy."
So the key to the success of "The Tea Party" rests not in its continuous existence, but in convincing one or both of the major parties to adopt most, if not all, of its policy objectives. George Wallace's movement contributed significantly to the rightward move of the Republican Party, strengthening the hand of Republican conservatives against liberal Eastern Establishment Republicans.
Time, too, may run out on "The Tea Party." Coming into existence on the advent of the 2010 mid-term elections, "The Tea Party" must rally its troops now. In political time, the 2012 presidential election is a long way off. "The Tea Party" may lack the staying power to remain a significant force in 2012.
But rallying an independent movement and developing a possible third-party during the midterm presents numerous problems. To illustrate, already in many states Democrats and Republicans have selected their candidates for various offices, so that "The Tea Party" is left with supporting a major party candidate rather than developing its own candidates either inside or outside "The Tea Party." Moreover, during the midterm the public lacks the intensity of focus on campaigns and elections that it otherwise has during a presidential election year. It's that intensity of public focus that greatly helps such movements as "The Tea Party."
Despite history and time running out on "The Tea Party," it can still significantly influence American politics if it establishes effective leadership and articulates a convincing political agenda. Absent a key leader that speaks for the movement and a specific agenda, it will lose much of its potential power in 2010 and its potential for continuing influence in 2012.
Regarding leadership, will someone arise to unify the disparate forces in "The Tea Party?" The media needs someone who can speak authoritatively for the movement. The clock is rapidly running out for "The Tea Party" to rally around an articulate and respected leader.
Regarding its policy agenda, "The Tea Party" must speak in something more than "glittering generalities," such as (1) limited government, (2) fiscal responsibility, (3) free and fair markets, (4) individual liberty base on personal responsibility, and (5) a return to constitutional governance. What does "The Tea Party" mean by each of these? As the political battles heat up, the media and political adversaries will press "The Tea Party" to define what it means by these general policy goals. Specifically, for example, where would "The Tea Party" cut the federal budget or how would it restore constitutional governance?
History and time may be against "The Tea Party," but it still has the potential to shake up America's lethargic two-party system. "The Tea Party's" large voter base could sway many elections in 2010 and influence one or both of the major parties to adjust to its policy and candidate preferences in 2012.
Charles W. Dunn is dean of the School of Government at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va.