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An ongoing discussion about conservatism in New Jersey.
Today's NJ tea party movement is not part of mainstream conservatism
Peter C. Hansen  (February 10, 2013, 10:42 pm)

A recent PolitickerNJ article noted that radio talk show host and Atlantic City attorney Seth Grossman intends to challenge Gov. Christie in the Republican primaries. Mr. Grossman, who in 2003 founded a reform group called Liberty and Prosperity 1776, asked, "Why would any Republican in his right mind want to support Chris Christie? Republican voters deserve a choice."

A choice between what and what, exactly? Mr. Grossman may be a fine guy, and his Eight Point Program for 2013 is hardly radical as manifestos go. Why then does Mr. Grossman feel compelled to treat Gov. Christie as an infidel? Indeed, to what political program is Christie an infidel? Seriously, enough is enough. Just as Fox News has started to dump the most tin-eared denizens of its echo chamber, it is past time for NJ conservatives to start calling out the Kool-Aid quaffers in our midst.

Gov. Christie has had some missteps, and I have criticized him on various matters. The man has, however, single-handedly turned the state back from fiscal oblivion. He reined in the public unions with skillful diplomacy that engaged private-union supporters. He has even canned patronage workers at the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission. In short, he has become the avatar of the NJ ethos by channeling the householders one hears talking in dentist offices, diners and supermarkets across the state. Back in 2010, I wrote that "[i]t's as if the man were formed by the swirling aether of NJ good sense into a planet-shaped force for good." I stand by that statement, and as of today 70% of deep-blue NJ agrees with it.

Meanwhile, three years ago the tea party had a 27% approval rating in NJ, and it is likely no higher today. A September 2012 article observed that the Somerset County Tea Party had grown from 20 members to "hundreds." Bizarrely, its leader, James Lefkowitz, claimed that "in 2010, we were the extremists. It's not so today." Yes, it is so today. At the last census, relatively conservative and Republican Somerset County had 323,444 people. Assuming that the Somerset County Tea Party's "hundreds" actually reached 1,000 members in the pre-election fervor, that means it would still have represented less than 1/3 of 1% of Somerset County residents just before a hotly contested national election. Even if each member represented 10 quiet sympathizers, that would still amount to just 3.4% of the county population.

Meanwhile, the tea party's noise and fury have driven away hordes of easygoing voters who would otherwise align with the Republicans. In 2009, when the tea party movement was briefly a mass movement, Christie crushed Corzine in Somerset County, 56-34. In 2012, national conditions were even more promising for a conservative resurgence, but the now-smaller and increasingly strident tea party was getting ever more headlines. That year, Obama clobbered Romney in Somerset County by 5.6%, only 0.5% less than in Obama's magical year of 2008. Romney was perhaps the most attractive possible Republican candidate for NJ, but the prevailing right-wing rhetoric (e.g. that of Fox's Sean Hannity) was high-volume bile aimed at an alleged tea party "base." The actual Somerset base is college-educated, gently traditional householders. Even just a few years ago, they were the core of the Republican bloc. In the tea party's race for "purest conservative," however, they have been reviled – implicitly or overtly – as RINOs or closet liberals. They know when they are not wanted, and they voted (or sat out) accordingly.

Revealing of the NJ tea party's breach with political reality is the election-season statement by the leader of the Union County Tea Party, Vikki Jensen, that "we're going to battle," and that while members are "all different," they are "united in rage." When outlets like Fox equated such folks with mainstream Republicans, the party's chances dimmed tremendously. Even in 2012, after years of stagnation, most right-leaning NJ householders with steady jobs and still-moderate taxes were little more than disappointed or apprehensive. They were not ready to storm the barricades in a red-eyed fury. They were thus turned off by Ms. Jensen's choice of words, which described the election in much the same angry way a Weatherman, Muslim Brotherhood official or Occupy Wall Street protestor would call for a "Day of Rage."

The tragedy of today's tea party is that it undermines the very values it seeks to propound. By seeking to turn conservatism into an in-group of purists, the tea party has alienated vast swathes of otherwise sympathetic citizens. It has also made it far harder to explain conservatism to non-conservatives, let alone to make a persuasive case. Where conservatives should be making calm, carefully reasoned arguments for well-grounded proposals, they instead have to contend with the stereotypes and caricatures which the tea party's "true believers" not only invite, but even gladly adopt. As a result, we have electoral disaster, stymied messaging, pointless ideological infighting, and a general collapse of spirit and purpose. All this so that self-righteous preeners can claim they offer a truly conservative "choice," or so they can publicly indulge their "rage."

What would be far more productive would be for today's tea partiers to help build conservatism, rather than wall it off. Instead of huddling in little groups to vent their spleen, why can't tea partiers instead reach out to educate and persuade? One could easily imagine, for example, a local tea party sponsoring a lecture series by serious scholars (say from Heritage, AEI or Cato), or an annual symposium at Rutgers on the future of state reform. Such outreach efforts would, however, require not only patience and graciousness, but also a belief that the state's populace can be persuaded. It is far from clear that the NJ tea party movement now has any such faith in its fellow citizens. This is why we see Mr. Grossman seeking not to win the state, but merely to conduct a hopeless primary charge against the hugely popular, and clearly conservative, Gov. Christie.

Mainstream conservatives should welcome the tea partiers back into the fold if and when they turn to more positive and productive pursuits. Until then, however, the tea party will remain a drag on the conservative movement and the Republican Party in New Jersey, and mainstream conservatives must therefore disclaim them. While this might suit all-in tea partiers eager to ditch the "RINOs" that constitute well over 90% of NJ Republicans, it is still a regrettable parting. The tea partiers' passion is commendable. It is their zealotry which has made them unrecognizable.