Being around in the early days of this “great awakening” known as the tea party, it was with much anticipation that I attended last weekend’s Florida Summit.
The event, organized by Karin Hoffman, founder of DC Works for US, brought together tea party leaders and other conservative activists from around the state.
The first thing evident on the event’s first full day, just a few months after November’s less-than-stellar election, was that participants never received the memo that the tea party is finished.
While I detected weariness in their demeanor, it was matched by a firm resolve. These were the doers among the tea party, and there was an undeniable determination about them.
Almost to a man — or woman — they seem to understand that the tea party is in transition and that the movement must learn and grow from its experiences. Having the opportunity to address the room, I fell back on a quote from Leon Megginson, a World War II vet and a professor from Louisiana State University, who said:
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but rather the one most adaptable to change.”
It was an encouraging sign that about 150 attendees gathered in the Buena Vista Palace conference room Saturday, about the same number as a similar Central Florida gathering held in late March.
While the ranks do not appear to have thinned, many of the older faces were absent. There were still a few “ambitious” individuals in the room, but many of the carnival barkers of years past were missing in action.
There was little presence from the libertarian-minded, often called the “liberty movement,” although Mark Cross, the Florida chairman of Campaign for Liberty, was there.
With the exception of newly elected U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., who addressed the gathering Saturday, there wasn’t an elected official in sight this non-election year — a stark difference from last year, when a U.S. Senate candidate forum was held, with former U.S. Sen. George LeMeiux, then-U.S. Rep. Connie Mack and challenger Mike McCalister participating.
The Senate race in Florida may have been the proverbial straw that broke the back of the tea party movement here. A faction collaborated with the D.C. insider group, FreedomWorks, in an attempt to create the false image that Mack enjoyed widespread support among tea party groups, with some healthy compensation being a part of the equation.
In fact, a straw poll was held at the end of last year’s forum, and Mack finished third in a three-way race, with his supporters and his campaign vociferously disputing the results.
Interestingly, FreedomWorks was among the sponsors of this weekend’s festivities. Outside of the GOP, the tea party must be leery of the litany of conservative organizations that regularly harvest its fertile ground.
While many have good intentions and most share common objectives, their interests trump that of the tea party. Valuable allies, no doubt, but they should be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism.
There were also no representatives of the Republican Party present — a stark reality that should resonate with everyone sitting in that room, although I sense many are still unsure about whether they’re conservative or Republican. These days, it’s hard to be both.
I suspect the GOP has moved on from the tea party. The “smartest guys in the room” are in need of a scapegoat for yet another dismal election performance, and the “yahoos” in the tea party make for a rather convenient scapegoat.
And you know what? The movement is all the better for it.
There was plenty of discussion about the few successes the movement did experience last year — much of it at the local level, where folks do the hard work of putting action to words. Tampa and Volusia County led the way here.
While some suggest the tea party’s real strength is its bottom-up nature, I’m of the opinion that the movement needs better structure if it hopes to endure. The progressive left is more focused and better organized, and well out in front.
A statewide organizational structure is needed, and the biggest challenge will be in setting up a fair and equitable process to arrive at the end product. And to keep the self-promoters and double agents — trust me, they exist — at bay as this effort takes shape.
There was a lot of talk about the coalitions on the left, and the various factions in the tea party must find common ground where they can, setting disagreements aside for another time. If it cannot do this, it will be but a footnote in history.
That fact was pointed out by Liberty Council’s Matt Staver, who addressed participants Friday evening. As he shared his views on the Second Amendment and updated attendees on the status of the legal challenge to Obamacare, he stressed that the conservative movement cannot afford to throw one person over the fence.
More importantly, Staver was adamant that the stakes could not be higher, and in the end, if the tea party falters, there’s no one else calling for fiscal responsibility and limited government outside of a few politicians pandering for votes. Future generations will look back on these times, and they will write the legacy of how this all plays out.
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