Neil Macdonald: Is the Tea Party losing its oomph?

Neil Macdonald went to a Tea Party convention this week in South Carolina, the spiritual home of the no-compromise movement. What he found was that Tea Partiers are looking to hold their noses and back Mitt Romney.

South Carolina Tea Partiers don't much like Mitt Romney, the Massachusetts moderate, but they seem willing to vote for him

If 300-plus black political activists held a convention in the Deep South, and the invited speakers were black, it would inevitably, and correctly, be referred to as a black political event.

So I'm going to call the Tea Party convention I just covered in Myrtle Beach, S.C., what it was: a white political event.

The attendees were friendly, polite and deeply committed to the cause of imposing a no-compromise conservative agenda on the U.S. government and the Republican party in particular.

But, in a state that's 30 per cent black, there wasn't a single black face at the event. Or any young faces that I could see.

That sort of homogeneity at least partly explains why the Tea Party is running out of steam in this heterogeneous nation.

Recent polls suggest that Americans' opinion of the hardline conservative movement has soured as they've learned more about it. Except in South Carolina.

If there is conservative bedrock in this nation, it's here. And it's white and overwhelmingly Christian, with evangelicals making up a huge chunk of that.

The Tea Party is active all over the state. One of the state's two U.S. senators, Jim DeMint, is regarded as the movement's ideological godfather.

So, given the Tea Party's absolutist commitment to conservative purity — DeMint once said he'd rather have a minority of 30 Republicans in the Senate "who believe in the principles of freedom" than a majority of 60 "who believe in nothing at all" — you'd think South Carolina would be a rough patch for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, decried by conservatives as the "Massachusetts moderate."

It appears you would be wrong.

'Electability is huge'

Newt Gingrich is certainly hoping Tea Partiers will help him stop Romney when they vote in the state's Republican primary this weekend.

S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley introduces Romney at a Republican event in Greenville.

Gingrich showed up at the Myrtle Beach Tea Party convention, denouncing Romney and pleading with the conventioneers to unify behind what he called "a real conservative" — him.

Rick Santorum, the fundamentalist Roman Catholic candidate, made the same pitch, asking the Tea Partiers: "Are you going to vote for somebody who can win, or for someone who is the right person for the office?"

Well, it turns out the Tea Partiers were asking themselves exactly that question.

As this presidential election year picks up speed, there are all sorts of indications that even the famously no-compromise Tea Partiers have accepted the fact that they live in America, where you have to compromise to attain power, and that attaining power is, after all, the whole point of politics.

I didn't speak to a single person at the Myrtle Beach convention who truly wants Romney as the nominee.

They don't like the fact that he once supported full equality for gay Americans and that he was once pro-choice. They absolutely hate the fact that he signed public health care — "Romneycare" — into law as governor of Massachusetts, just the way that "socialist in the White House" did two years ago.

A quick note about South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. She is a brilliant speaker and a bit of an anomaly in the Tea Party as well as in the state's government. While she was born in South Carolina and peppers her speeches with "y'all," she was raised Sikh before converting to Christianity.

Conservatives who object to the all-white characterization of the movement point to Haley as proof of their diversity, and indeed, she was the only non-white at the Myrtle Beach convention that day. — N.M.

Plus he skipped their convention.

But that said, I didn't speak to a single person who wouldn't vote for him.

"It'll probably be Romney," Babs Utley, from the Hilton Head Tea Party chapter, told me with a grimace. "I figure it will, but I don't want it to be."

Would that not be a compromise of Tea Party principle?

"Well, yeah," she replied, "but what would you do? Would you vote for Obama?"

Electability, she added, "is huge."

Power trumps purity

Luke Towery, a co-founder of the Myrtle Beach Tea Party, had an even more surgical assessment.

The movement's principles, he said, are important, but there's a bigger consideration: "Getting a conservative candidate, even if it's not the most conservative candidate, into office."

Towery concedes there is some irony in hearing a Tea Partier talk compromise, but he knows that in a general election "you have to appeal to independents as well."

I asked if that means most people at the convention would vote for a "Massachusetts moderate?"

"As would I, if it were to come to that," he nodded. "Because the final objective, the ultimate objective, is to beat Obama."

A little later, I ran into David Wilkins, the former U.S. ambassador to Canada and one of the canniest political operators in the state, at a separate GOP event just down the road from the Tea Party convention.

When I reminded him of Jim DeMint's ideological purity maxim, he stared at me for a long moment: "I do not share that view," he finally replied, deadpan.

Wilkins, who presided over the South Carolina legislature as Speaker for 11 years in an earlier life, would rather compromise, and attain power.

Of course he would. As would Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican who declined widespread calls to run for the nomination: "Purity in martyrdom is for suicide bombers," he once said.

Triple play?

Even South Carolina's most conservative Republicans seem to be coming around to the view that power trumps purity.

Romney has been well ahead in the state's polls leading up to this Saturday's vote, and far ahead nationally.

Nikki Haley, who was propelled into the governor's office by the Tea Party two years ago, and who identifies herself part of the movement, has endorsed Romney, saying she "needs a partner" in Washington.

Even DeMint has said publicly that Romney will probably win the state.

As for Romney's Mormonism, which some Christian leaders had said would be an issue for Christian voters, it is apparently of less concern than getting rid of Obama.

Romney has already done what no other Republican non-incumbent has done: He has won both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

If the deeply conservative, white, Christian, Tea-Party-inclined Republicans of South Carolina endorse him Saturday, he will almost certainly be the nominee.

The great compromise will have been made.


  • This analysis by Neil Macdonald of a Tea Party convention in South Carolina said there were no African Americans at the event. However, CBC News has since learned that a black conservative activist from Texas, Apostle Claver Kamau-Imani, who hosts a Christian radio show, addressed the opening session of the convention the previous day, when the CBC was not present. It was subsequently brought to our attention that Republican congressman Tim Scott, an African American, also addressed the opening session that first day.
    Jan 19, 2012 2:06 PM ET