The South Carolina Tea Party Coalition gathered last weekend in Myrtle Beach, and there was never a dull moment. All the leading right-wing organizations were there, including the Tea Party Patriots, Freedom Works, the Heritage Foundation, the Tea Party Leadership Fund, and Americans for Prosperity. Contenders for the 2016 presidential race made stump speeches. Senators and congressmen tossed red meat to the hungry throngs.
The event sold out, skewering the notion that the Tea Party is in decline. Conservative celebrities lined up to participate. I have been attending events like this for a long time, and let me tell you – these people are more fired up than ever.
Some things haven’t changed. Barack Obama remains the target of the Tea Party’s ire, and the conservative faithful are more baffled than ever that so many Americans are still oblivious to the damage he continues to inflict on our nation. And the Tea Party is still an army of mostly gray-haired, fair-skinned grandmas and grandpas.
Yet the Tea Party and the conservative movement continues to evolve.
Lately the grassroots conservatives are as angry at Republicans as they are at arch-rival liberal Democrats. They stood and cheered as speaker after speaker exhorted them to “hold the Republicans in DC accountable.” Congressmen Louie Gohmert, Jim Bridenstine and Jeff Duncan got standing O’s specifically to thank them for their anti-Boehner votes. Still, Rep. Mick Mulvaney came out guns blazing in defense of his vote for the Speaker, and scored some points.
Minorities continue to gain in numbers and in comfort level in Tea Party circles. While they have always been warmly welcomed by the Tea Party, African American and Hispanic conservatives no longer feel conspicuous and are taking a significant leadership role.
A fairly large contingent of young conservatives also attended. One of the most compelling presentations came from Lauren Cooley of Turning Point USA. Cooley, a striking and very hip young lady, is winning high school and college students over to the conservative side at a wholesale clip. She single-handedly shut down the gender-studies department and its series of obscene programs at Furman University, and handed attendees to a Jesse Jackson event a list of unflattering direct quotes by him, standing her ground in a confrontation with the embarrassed sponsors. Her charges carry the pithy message, “Big Government Sucks”, and in growing numbers they understand and articulate the abuses heaped on young Americans by their government in recent years.
But the biggest change in the conservative movement is more subtle, and significantly more important. Grassroots conservatives have learned that they must work within the system to accomplish real reform. The days of loud complaints but little action are history, as conservative activists now work to reorganize precincts, run for local offices, and learn policy issues in detail, making them formidable citizen leaders and constituents. And the top conservative organizations all have focused goals with serious action plans in place to accomplish them.
Two larger-than-life issues in South Carolina took center stage at the convention. A determined group of conservatives led by Greenville activist Diane Hardy contends that primary registration by party would prevent election perversions such as moderate Republican Lyndsey Graham’s narrow win over several conservative primary candidates. Graham’s name, by the way, was roundly booed whenever uttered at the event.
Another policy issue that caught a lot of attention is the failure of the state to honestly implement its new law that struck down the Common Core standards. A panel was assigned to write new state standards, but instead they merely copied the Common Core standards and gave it a new name. An aggressive campaign is underway by Shari Few and her group, South Carolina Parents Involved in Education, to rewrite the standards.
South Carolina is an early primary state, a fact not lost on presidential hopefuls. Dr. Ben Carson was soft-spoken, but his conservative convictions were rock-hard. He admitted a lack of experience and expertise in both foreign and domestic affairs, promising to surround himself with smart people. Senator Ted Cruz made a rock-star entrance and then machine-gunned his well-rehearsed talking points with precision and authority, if not much inspiration. Cruz knows exactly what buttons to push. Rick Santorum was sincere, but didn’t show much fire in the belly. Donald Trump was . . . well, you know. Arrogant and embarrassingly shallow. But he was warmly received.
In conversation and informal straw polls, most of the attendees seemed to favor Scott Walker and Dr. Carson for president.
Nobody went home from this event feeling cheated. I’m sure this group from South Carolina provides a good cross-section of the Tea Party nationwide. And while the grassroots conservative movement has been consistent over the years in its values and aims, one can’t help but sense the changes underway.
Tom Balek – Rockin’ On the Right Side