Tea parties start to look like MoveOn deja vu

The tea parties will become a Republican version of MoveOn if they're not mindful of history. That will mean not accomplishing a single one of their stated goals. That may sound strange, so let's go back a few years.

MoveOn was started by a handful of activists concerned about the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Like the tea parties, it was a grassroots effort that relied on activists with little or no political experience. The Internet and current events brought them together against a government run amuck.

MoveOn became a force to be reckoned with. It was an organization initially funded by small contributions. As its members traded e-mails and discussions in the blogosphere, small meetings started to materialize. These small meetings became large meetings.

The Democratic machine eventually took note. It capitalized on themes of ending the war, election reform, impeaching Bush and otherwise holding the Republican majority accountable. Democrats weren't shy about letting these new activists work for the party, but sharing power was another story. Like the tea parties today, people were asking where these new activists were when the problem started. But they moved forward with the single-minded goal of replacing Republicans.

Democratic campaigns came in, offering to move these new activists along in the party. They brought them on board with campaigns and offered them paid positions. Eventually, a long series of personal army requests from the establishment led to a Democratic takeover in 2006 and the presidency of Barack Obama in 2008.

In 2007, the Democrats to gave Bush far more than he asked for. Impeachment was pulled off the table. Plans were cemented for a permanent presence of 50,000 troops in Iraq well after 2011, a plan that Obama hasn't deviated from. In 2010, all hope that MoveOn had for universal health care was the first thing to go. A progressive grassroots movement was effectively co-opted.

A few independent thinkers like Cindy Sheehan saw this coming after the Democratic takeover. The party, however, had other plans. Sheehan was effectively dispatched from the movement as the machine she worked so hard for turned on ending the war. It was all about electing Democrats from the very beginning.

While excessive spending and taxation were problems well before 2008, the bailouts had a similar effect to the war in Iraq. This time, it was a justified populist backlash against corporate welfare and taxpayer subsidized rewards for failure. The earliest tea parties, however small, originated with the Ron Paul campaign. The concept went mainstream as one-day money bombs shattered fundraising records. Eventually, Rick Santelli brought it to a whole new level in 2009.

Initially, and like MoveOn, the tea parties did the right thing by asserting that it was time for their concerns to be heard. Many Republicans were not invited to speak at these events, especially Republicans who contributed to reckless spending.

As the Republicans slowly figured out how to capitalize on this movement, they too brought on organizers and started offering paid positions. Republican effectiveness eventually surpassed that of the Democrats. The tea parties did all of the heavy lifting to elect Scott Brown in Massachusetts. Then, less than 24 hours after his election, Brown renewed his commitment to government-run health care - something the tea party movement opposes.

We've seen this before. More importantly, Democratic failures led to MoveOn in the first place. Republican failures likewise created the tea parties.

Whether it's getting the anti-war movement to embrace war or fiscal conservatives to embrace government-run health care, the game is identical. No change will come for the left or the right unless activists remain principled and assertive. That can never mean electing Democrats and Republicans just to remove Republicans and Democrats. In fact, that approach gives neither party a reason to change anything whatsoever.

Dan Reale lives in Plainfield and has run as a Libertarian Party candidate for Congress in the 2nd District.


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