Is the handwriting on the wall for the tea party movement in Michigan?
The saying “the handwriting is on the wall” has as its source an incident in 539 BC, recorded for posterity in Daniel 5, in which King Belshazzar of Babylon is plainly told that he has been weighed in the divine balance and found wanting, that the days of both his kingdom and his life have been numbered and brought to an end, and that his empire will be divided between the Medes and Persians then advancing on the city. The concept survives in modern English idiomology to imply that circumstances are such for a person or organization that it is now clear that their ultimate failure is to be expected, or at best will be effectively impossible to avert.
Given the thorough pasting that the constitutionalist insurgency endured in Michigan last month, as a statewide aggregate, it wasn’t exactly a leap for reporters and pundits (likely working from a coordinated set of talking points courtesy of the Michigan Republican Party old guard) to insert dramatic prophecies of impending doom for the tea party movement into their headlines and opinion pieces. David’s missive and Jason’s observation notwithstanding, I don’t think it unreasonable to ask the question: Given the significant events of last August, let alone the past 5-1/2 years, is the tea party movement on the verge of becoming just another footnote in Michigan political history?
2009 was a very good year for the tea party movement in Michigan. In response to the “rant heard ‘round the world,” the “founding mothers” hastily assembled a rally on the Capitol Lawn in Lansing, attracting about 300 participants on less than a week’s notice. Six weeks later, a better organized and better advertised rally in the exact same venue drew a crowd of better than 5,000. Other rallies held on that same day in other parts of the state, coordinated so as to minimize conflict with the main rally in Lansing, also drew crowds in the mid-four-figure range.
Whether on Tax Day, Independence Day, or at any other point throughout the balance of the year, the tea party rallies were fun, too. They typically featured engaging speakers, motivated and energized activists, and even occasionally included openly crashing democrat events. Spirited protests and counter-protests always drew plenty of media coverage. Admittedly, Republican Party organizations were the ones pulling the initial permits (early in the year), but that changed in a hurry as tea party leaders quickly learned the political ropes (including fundraising). By the time that the 2010 tax day tea party rallies were being advertised, there was considerable hope that a “pachyderm wave” would begin the process of restoring a constitutionally-limited government that actually leaves its law-abiding citizens alone.
When the Michigan Republican Party jumped onboard as an official sponsor of the Michigan Healthcare Freedom Initiative, there was much rejoicing among the tea party rank and file. Surely, this was a good thing, that the state party leadership understood that flexing our Tenth Amendment sovereignty was the only way to bring the ACA “obamination” to a screaming halt.
Unfortunately, as many tea party leaders in Michigan started figuring out – as early as during the candidate vetting process – the MIGOP party brass and old guard bluebloods weren’t all that interested in actual limited-government governing, but only in returning to power. Granted, as Ron Weiser would say at the August 2010 State Convention, it’s kinda hard to call the tea party influence an invasion if the front door’s open and the welcome mat’s out. But it was also increasingly clear that certain establishment elements preferred that the tea partiers “mind their place” and not rock the boat, which led to a rather interesting triad of skirmishes at that same state convention, specifically including smoking out the rats in the snake pit (providing testament to just how much potential clout the tea party movement has).
And just to put a point on the sentiment, a certain former statewide office holder was overheard, in a particular February 2011 district caucus, saying words to the effect of: “We’re a family here, and we’ve always done it the traditional way. Who are these people to think they can come in here and stage a coup?” which prompted one of the three tea party leaders overhearing her to reply: “Challenging candidates for election and insisting that things be done properly isn’t a coup; it’s the core of how the democratic process works.” That unguarded moment probably speaks more to the old guard’s view of the tea party movement than all of the platitudes they handed out (and continue to hand out) during the campaign cycle.
Of course, the 2012 cycle brought us the Michigan Dele-Gate Fiasco, which pretty much removed any residual doubt that the establishment kleptocrats in the Michigan Banana Republican Party would continue to do whatever they had the votes to get away with doing, and the integrity argument be damned. The resulting backlash culminated in the Showdown In Motown, where the tea party network (aided by a couple of well-known consulting firms and their infrastructure), replaced the chief thief with a national committeeman who has considerably more integrity.
At the February 2013 State Convention, an attempt to follow up on the May 2012 results – by replacing a state party chairman whose credibility had become suspect – failed narrowly. (It wasn’t helpful that one of the consulting firms that had assisted us nine months previously was now working against us.) However, it did result in sending a message that the constitutionalist insurgency is not to be toyed with, a message that the progressives running the show in Lansing promptly established that they weren’t listening to. Between signing off on the NITC bridge, Medicaid expansion, Common Core implementation, and threatening to raise transportation-related taxes and fees (this in addition to raising the pension tax, and vetoing legislation that would have expanded concealed-carry permits, strengthened voter identification policies, and provided greater legislative oversight of executive memorandums), it should have come as a surprise to no one that a survey conducted by iCaucus Michigan the week before Labor Day 2013 showed Governor Snyder to be provably vulnerable to a primary challenge, though not just any challenger would do.
That the iCaucus survey caught the Snyder-Calley campaign team (who had been gearing up for the Nakagiri challenge to Calley) flatfooted with their pants down was evidenced by the speed with which the consulting class scrambled to press to pooh-pooh the survey’s findings (either through strawman counterarguments, red herring rebuttals, or thinly veiled ad hominem attacks). Hell, they even went so far as to run a counter-survey (of low-information, not-necessarily-republican, likely primary voters) specifically to rebut what they perceived as the key point of the iCaucus survey, and in doing so, did a marvelous job of failing to connect the dots with regard to the actual money question. RDS had, by his performance in office, spent nigh unto three straight years poisoning the party brand, and damn near half of the party’s grassroots base was tired of it. But, go figure, that message didn’t sink in either.
Instead, and perhaps in hindsight predictably, what the party brass bluebloods and their consulting class did do was to overplay their hand, and openly pillory the one hypothetical challenger whom they truly feared. Never mind that Bill Schuette, who also polled better than Snyder, actually had the financial resources to be a credible threat, nor that Gary Glenn, who polled behind Snyder, mathematically had a shot, and the grassroots infrastructure to pull it off if he so chose . . . no, because Dave Agema polled outside the margin of error, and there was no chance that this was due to a sampling mistake, therefore Agema delenda est. And in December, the wooden shoe mafia began their smear campaign in earnest.
See, Agema tends to be a bit of a straight shooter, with a reputation both for calling ‘em as he sees ‘em and for telling people the unvarnished truths they don’t want to hear. (Given that he’s a retired fighter pilot, that character trait shouldn’t be surprising.) A year and a half ago, he dared both to propose a Core Values Resolution (which was unanimously adopted by the RNC) and to publicly make the case for continued support for the traditional definition of marriage. There is no way that sat well with the log cabin crowd, nor their deep-pocketed progressive enablers, who appear to be more interested in pandering to a behavioral-choice demographic (that comprises approximately 3.8% of the national population, according to 2011 numbers) than they are in delivering platform-consistent election results.
So, what they did was cherry-pick Agema’s remarks to the Berrien County Republican Party holiday reception. Instead of focusing on the principal message of his address (that the party has to figure out how to get the various philosophical dispositions working together in order to survive as a political force going forward), they made a personal account (describing his experience as an American Airlines pilot observing gays abusing the company’s healthcare policy) the “news” headline, and then used their pet weasel to manufacture a controversy that included a handful of high-profile “republicans” toothlessly demanding Agema’s resignation. Said handful specifically including a certain “tea party darling” who flipped his allegiance, and, in spite of a rousing primary-night reprimand, both whipped his district and delivered the nomination remarks for the incumbent whom the insurgency had targeted for convention ouster. (And me daring to point out both the obvious inconsistency, and the likely reason for it, drew a considerable amount of fire from Gadsden wavers who reflexively apply the Corinthian Scales Fallacy when it comes to their movement rockstar.)
Now, to be sure, Bobby Schostak did in fact say on the record that, “We will do all that we can to protect Brian Calley”; but any who honestly believe that the end goal of the “Conservative Victory Project” was achieved in Novi are . . . well . . . extraordinarily shortsighted. Arguably the largest single-cycle precinct delegate recruitment effort in Michigan Republican history – involving at least three professional firms (combined full-time staff upwards of three dozen), bankrolled by some deep-pocketed old money donors (a combined total of between $3 million to $10 million) – was not assembled for the sole purpose of protecting the Nerd Prince. The precinct delegates (and county and state primary nominees) elected last month now form the convention delegate pool that will decide both the state committee makeup in February 2015 (when Bobby Schostak will be eligible for reelection) and the national convention delegation in May 2016 (when Dave Agema will be eligible for reelection). Like a chess master who uses misdirection to mask his true objective, the Michigan Freedom Fund has always been targeting Agema’s national committee seat!!! What annoys me is that I called this back in November of last year, and I get the distinct impression that precious few were listening.
A friend of mine, who’s really familiar with both the reform movement (which survives in Michigan as the Natural Law Party) and the tea party movement, recently said to me, “A political movement retains its effectiveness only so long as its philosophical ideology and its electoral end goal remain in balance, relative to each other. If that balance is ever disrupted, then there is a limited window of time to restore it before the inexorable weight of Duverger’s Law irretrievably carries the movement off to the ash heap of history.” That friend, and a few political/business associates, have all discussed with me at least four separate instances in Michigan’s modern republican history – since the current Michigan Constitution was ratified – when there were coordinated efforts to purge the traditional, constitutional conservative voice from the Michigan Republican Party ranks, never completely succeeding. Each of those associates/friends has independently noted that what they see happening right now with the tea party movement in Michigan seems to them like a bad rerun, but all is not lost . . . at least not yet.
In January 2011, Norm Shinkle, Victor Diaz, and Ron Weiser all independently asserted that, for the tea party to be effective going forward, the movement has to stay relevant, stay involved in the primary process, and remain the voice of principle within the party. However, in order to actually accomplish anything, the various insurgency elements (tea party republicans, libertarian republicans, establishment conservatives, etc.) need to figure out how to work smarter, instead of harder. It can be done, don’t get me wrong, because that much was demonstrated in the 11th and 12th districts last month. Spreading that success statewide, though, is going to require the several insurgency leaders to: (a) get into the habit of thinking and planning at least an election cycle ahead, (b) sit down and build the necessary inter-factional consensus, and (c) start thinking more like Grant (and less like McClellan). Based on what happened in Novi, I see three other districts (besides the 11th and 12th) where these conversations are already happening, and perhaps two more where insurgency leadership just might have seen the light. Beyond that . . .
I’ve written about all this before, and I will be writing about it again. Just so I’m clear, the party brass is still quietly working behind the scenes to silence the voice of the platform republicans. Which means that the insurgency pretty much has until Mackinac 2015 to get its act together . . . or else (and you can take your pick from the “or else” column). Is the handwriting on the wall for the tea party movement in Michigan? Honestly, right now, that’s up to them.