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Riding the Tiger > Category: Third Parties

Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

What Are The Tea Party’s Plans?

Don’t Stop the Party, Miller Center Forum with Matt Kibbe of FreedomWorks

Last week, Politico reported that the Tea Party is back in action with a new strategy and a growing membership.  While discussions from the April 25th caucus meeting were not made public, Matt Kibbe, president and CEO of FreedomWorks (the most influential tea party organization in the United States), spoke about Tea Party 3.0 and the future direction of the Tea Party at a Miller Center Forum in March.

During the forum, Kibbe noted that the Tea Party is going to focus on getting their policy proposals focused on reducing the budget and reforming entitlements introduced by members of Congress. He also noted there are at least ten Senators whom the Tea Party has helped elect to office, including “rock stars” Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.

The plan for 2014, according to Kibbe, is to go after a number of Democratic seats that are up for reelection in 2014 and to focus on places like South Carolina. According to Kibbe, “We can do better than Lindsey Graham in the primary.” He also argued there is a big opportunity is to solve the Missouri problem and get behind principled fiscal conservatives in Arkansas, North Dakota and Alaska.

1912: The Last Transformative Third Party Convention

1912 National Progressive Convention at the Chicago Coliseum.

“National Progressive Convention, Chicago, August 6, 1912.” Moffett Studio and Kaufmann, Weimer & Fabry Co., copyright claimant. Taking the Long View: Panoramic Photographs, 1851-1991, Library of Congress. PD

Last month, we blogged about TR and the Bull Moose campaign of 1912. We argued that it was a transformative campaign infused with constitutional significance that championed the “modern” presidency as the institutional means to a full-blown social insurance state. In light of the 100th anniversary of the Progressive Party’s convention in Chicago and in preparation for the upcoming Democratic and Republican conventions that will begin later this month, today’s post examines in greater depth the importance of the 1912 convention. Indeed, in the last one hundred years, it’s difficult to imagine a third party convention and campaign that has had a more important impact on American politics and political development.

The Progressive Party’s 1912 convention marked an important change in presidential campaigns, whereby candidates, rather than the parties conducted and gave definition to the national contests. TR broke long-standing precedents by launching a direct primary campaign and his famous “Confession of Faith” address delivered on the second day of the convention proposed a universal system of direct primaries to replace the convention as the mode of nominating candidates in order to thwart the “invisible government” that silenced the people. Furthermore, TR broke convention precedents by joining his running mate, California Governor Hiram Johnson, in accepting the party’s nomination before the assembled delegates after being informally notified of their nomination. Previously, party nominees stayed away from conventions until they had been formally notified.

The convention was particularly significant for uniting seemingly disparate strands of social reform and wedding TR’s charisma to various causes, thereby creating a more coherent movement. As Roosevelt’s friend and critic Learned Hand wrote in a letter soon after the convention:

It is the most inspiring time in my own political experience, and has the largest premise for good. You have succeeded in switching the radical movement from the mere distribution of political power to the actual issues for which political power exists at all…You will immensely raise the tone of American politics for a generation.

The convention embodied the religious earnestness of the social gospelers in its ranks who invested moral fervor into TR’s crusade for a new form of politics that would transform the religion of America into a new national democracy. While TR played a central role in mediating and shaping work on the Progressive Party platform, which was crafted over the summer months, social reformers played a critical role in formulating the “covenant with the people.”

Ain’t No Party Like the Revived Tea Party

 Ted Cruz speaking at a Tea Party Express rally in Austin, Texas.

Ted Cruz speaking at a Tea Party Express rally in Austin, Texas, May 6, 2012. Photo by Gage Skidmore. CC-SA.

In a new WaPo article, Miller Center Forum Chair and Washington Post Contributing Editor Douglas Blackmon documents how the Tea Party has been transforming itself into a more viable political operation. Many eyes are on the GOP run-off election for the Senate nomination in Texas today, where thanks to intense Tea Party efforts, young conservative Latino star Ted Cruz appears likely to win against an establishment-supported candidate. But, as Blackmon documents, the Tea Party’s revival and transformation goes beyond today’s race. Indeed, Tea Party efforts have helped oust GOP incumbents or to force primary run-off elections. According to Blackmon:

The movement has retooled into a loosely organized network of field operations that, as in Texas, pushes Republicans toward more strident conservative positions and candidates, while supplying ground troops across the country for candidates and big-money conservative groups, such as the Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity.

Meanwhile organizations affiliated with the Tea Party are actively recruiting and mobilizing voters in support of party-backed candidates in state and local elections, including in critical states such as Ohio. Perhaps even more impressive and a telling sign of its future viability are efforts to raise funds. According to Blackmon: 

FreedomWorks says that almost 190,000 activists have joined its “FreedomConnector” online network and that it expects fundraising in 2012 to exceed the approximately $21 million it collected last year. Through the end of May, tea-party-associated political action committees had raised almost $18 million.

Tea Party Patriots, an organization that says it is affiliated with more than 3,500 local tea party groups, reported raising $12 million in donations in 2011 and says it is on track to match or surpass that number this year.

It remains unclear, however, whether and how these mobilization efforts will play out in the presidential contest. There are divisions within the Tea Party over its alignment with the establishment GOP and many have been critical of Mitt Romney. Yet their “preference for any alternative to President Obama” could be enough of a motivating force to boost pro-Romney efforts.

While the Tea Party is more of a loose network of organizations than a centralized structure, it remains a force with which both Republicans and Democrats alike will have to reckon, certainly in this election cycle, but perhaps over the long-run as well.

Transforming American Democracy: TR and The Bull Moose Campaign of 1912

1912 US colorized postcard showing Theodore Roosevelt speaking to crowd.

1912 US colorized postcard showing Theodore Roosevelt speaking to crowd.

One hundred years ago this week, a dramatic Republican National Convention prepared the ground for the transformation of American democracy. On June 17, 1912, the celebrated ex-President Theodore Roosevelt delivered a dramatic speech that that encouraged his political followers to walk out of the Convention, maintaining that the Republican National Committee and President William Howard Taft defied the will of the people and stole the nomination of the Grand Old Party. Since April, Roosevelt had warned of a walkout should the Old Guard of the party defy the clear intention of the Republican primaries that year – the first time popular primaries played an important role in a presidential election. Having been denied the Republican nomination, in spite of trouncing President Taft in these contests, TR bolted the Republican Convention and summoned a new party to “stand at Armageddon" and “battle for the Lord.” Progressive followers of TR left the convention on June 22 and reconvened in Chicago's Orchestra Hall to endorse the formation of a national progressive party.

The 1912 presidential election was a rare campaign in which voters were challenged to think seriously about their rights and the Constitution. Four impressive candidates engaged in a remarkable debate about the future of American democracy. In particular, each candidate tried to grapple with the emergence of corporations embodying a concentration of economic power that posed fundamental challenges to the foundations of the decentralized republic of the 19th century. Although Eugene Debs, the Socialist candidate, and Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic candidate who was elected president, contributed significantly to this surrogate constitutional convention, in a real sense, the most important exchange was between TR and Taft.

That the 1912 election registered, and inspired, fundamental changes in American politics owes, above all, to Roosevelt’s Progressive party campaign.  The party was joined by an array of crusading reformers who viewed Roosevelt's campaign as their best hope to advance a program of national transformation. TR’s campaign pioneered a new form of “modern” politics – one that would eventually displace the traditional localized democracy, which had dominated representative government in the United States since the beginning of the nineteenth century. His crusade made universal use of the direct primary a cause célèbre; assaulted traditional partisan loyalties; and championed candidate-centered campaigns. Indeed, it advocated a direct relationship between government and public opinion, facilitated by the recall, initiative and referendum, including popular referenda on court decisions, and a more majoritarian constitutional amendment process. It also took advantage of the centrality of the newly emergent mass media and convened an energetic, but uneasy coalition of self-styled public advocacy groups. All of these features of the Progressive party campaign make the election of 1912 look more like that of 2012 than that of 1908.