[As promised, here is my report.]
I was able to cram in two events. The first was a reception hosted by the Republican National Lawyers Association for Joe Birkett. It was a nice event, hosted by the same people who ran the election poll-watching project I wrote about previously. Judge Birkett gave an engaging talk. I was interested to see what he would say about current developments, but he said very little. He was carefully judicious in avoiding anything that could be construed as political in nature, as is appropriate and required by his new status as a judge. The gentleman who introduced him observed that he was “the captain of every football team he was ever on” which was believable, as was his youthful boxing championship. As a former prosecutor, he had the tough, cop-like demeanor you would expect. At one point he commented that the GOP needs to reach out to the Tea Party and work with them. It was rather vague. I mean nothing invidious about Judge Birkett when I observe that establishment GOP figures in Illinois seem puzzled by the Tea Party phenomenon. This perception would be reinforced later in the evening.
Also present at the Birkett event was conservative radio personality Dan Proft, who ran for governor last time, and recently got the 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. slot on WLS in Chicago. Dan gave a nice talk about a project he is supporting, Operation Homefront, which provides assistance to Illinois families of deployed service members, or wounded service members returning to civilian life.
I was able to get into a cab and dash over to the monthly Tea Party meeting and only missed the first few minutes. I was eager to hear a talk by Otis McDonald, plaintiff in the gun rights case McDonald v. City of Chicago. Unfortunately, Mr. McDonald cancelled at the last minute.
The meeting turned out to be the best one I have been to yet, anyway.
I pretty much missed the first speaker Andrew Coffey. (I am told Mr. Coffey “works with Jon Najarian at CNBC. He’s @coffeygrinds on Twitter”.)
The second speaker was a delightful surprise: David Lowery, President of the Chicago Far-South Suburban Branch of the NAACP. Mr. Lowery did not get into any policy specifics. He spoke instead about defending the rights of all Americas, now matter what color they are. He seemed to want to reach out, to meet the Tea Party and get a feel for who and what it was. Mr. Lowery was greeted very warmly both before and especially after he spoke. Since I was holding a drink in my hand (these events are held at Blackie’s, a very nice tavern) I could not take notes, and as I sit here I am struggling to recall any details of what he said. All I remember is that it was patriotic, open-hearted, and earnest, and I repeatedly got a little choked up listening to him. There is a distinctive African American style of public speaking, which is very powerful, and Mr. Lowery has it, and is a moving speaker. He was extending a hand of friendship, and that hand was grasped in return. I hope that in the future there will be a prospect for substantive cooperation between his NAACP branch and the Chicago Tea Party. The possibilities and potential are mind-blowing.
Next up was an even more amazing and unexpected speaker: Pat Brady, Chairman of the Illinois Republican Party just sorta dropped by to say hello. Mr. Brady congratulated the Tea Party on the recent budget deal, which he clearly saw as a victory by and for the Tea Party. Mr. Brady said that the Illinois GOP wanted to work with the Tea Party in the future. He said that he was part of the Conservative Movement – an old-fashioned, Reagan-era phrase I grew up with, but have not heard in a long time – and that he believed Tea Party was, too. He was asked a lot of questions, many pointed, some verging on hostile, but all coherent and civil in tone. He responded politely to all of them, and rebutted some criticisms. One African American gentleman told Mr. Brady that the GOP had abandoned Chicago and that he was sick of living under the “shackles” of the Democratic Party, and asked him why the GOP did not even bother to run candidates in Chicago. Mr. Brady did not have a good answer for that one, though we all know that the answer is that the GOP has always considered any such effort to be a waste of time.
Two themes Mr. Brady kept coming back to were that (1) that we need to “beat Madigan” – meaning defeat Michael Madigan, the Democrat leader of the Illinois House, and the leader of the Democrats statewide, and (2) that the GOP needs to “work on messaging.” These are both OK, but I am afraid they show some failures of understanding. The problems with the state are not about any one person, and personalizing the massive problems of Illinois misses the point. There is a whole way of doing business in Illinois that is much bigger than Mr. Madigan. Further, a few months ago, in the Fall of 2010, the Illinois GOP simply squandered a chance to change the direction of the state. I don’t see much evidence that the GOP leadership has learned anything yet. You need to mobilize people, and it takes ideas to do that. As to “messaging” – this suggests that the GOP wants to figure out what people want to hear so it can tell them what they want to hear, which means further aversion to substance and the prospect of actual change. It does not suggest any particular grasp or possession of any principles. In an era of ongoing crisis like the one we are stuck with now, in Illinois and nationally, you have to have some principles, because large-scale and painful change is inevitable – either you enact it yourself or events force it on you. You have to have some principles to show you the direction you need to go when painful change has become inevitable and mandatory. The Tea Party is composed entirely of people motivated by principle, not by any immediate personal interest. They are not insiders, they are not professionals, and most of them have other things they would prefer to do, but they feel that political involvement has been forced upon them by the dire condition of the state and the country. They are concerned not with “messaging” to gain electoral victory, but to gain electoral victory to put principles into practice, to salvage what we can from the mess we are in.
What the GOP seems not to understand is that the Tea Party makes it possible for them to take policy steps that would be far too hard, politically, without the Tea Party. One of my friends put it well: “Brady doesn’t see what a favor we are doing for him.” The Tea Party, by being uncompromising, moves the political center. The Tea Party, by sticking to its principles, opens up space on the Right for the rest of the GOP to make policy changes that would not otherwise be possible. The Tea Party meanwhile draws all the hysteria and execration and defamation from the MSM and the Democrats and other assorted riff raff.
Mr. Brady noted the youth, enthusiasm and diversity of the group, which had several Hispanic and African Americans, and said that this was missing from the typical Republican Party gathering in recent years – where most people look like older “Irish Catholic Americans”. This is certainly an accurate observation. There is a lot of vitality in these Tea Party gatherings, which the very stale Illinois GOP sorely needs.
I don’t know what Mr. Brady meant to accomplish by coming, but he got an earful – polite, but forceful. Mr. Brady is a very experienced political professional. I think he was there primarily on a reconnaissance mission, to try to gauge what this group is about, whether it is real or is a bunch of hype, and how the GOP should respond to it. It will be interesting to see what happens in the months ahead.
After Mr. Brady, we heard from Lenny McAllister, our second African American speaker of the night. Mr. McAllister was recently fired from his position as the conservative voice on WVON, a radio station with a primarily African American listenership. (The story of leading up to his termination is told here.) (Mr. McAllister signed copies of his book Diary of a Mad Black PYC (Proud Young Conservative).) Mr. McAllister spoke the need to speak up about the inequality in America, and to offer Conservative solutions to it, not pretend it isn’t there. He said conservatives and the Tea Party should not be “afraid to speak about race.” He was very good, but went on a little too long. About five minutes in, I turned to the people around me, “can we run this guy against Barack?” I asked him a question, noting that I was old enough to remember Jack Kemp advocating a Conservative outreach to what was then called the Black Community – he cut in, joking, “don’t call us Black!” – and I was all in favor of the Kemp approach then, and always have been, and I have waited a third of a century in vain for this to happen. I asked him for three actionable policy proposals that the Tea Party should propose to African Americans. He refused to get wonkish, though, and I got no specific policy proposals from him. His message is patriotism, free enterprise, American exceptionalism, and calling real problems by their real names. I am sure we will be hearing much more from in the years ahead.
Last up was local Tea Partier Eric Kohn who spoke at an event called Bughouse square, apparently to a primarily Lefty crowd, whose many mean words left no visible scars on Eric.
The overall take away from the evening was about as follows:
(1) The Tea Party continues to grow, to be full of people with good ideas and energy. I hope this translates into significant and increasing political impact.
(2) The establishment GOP in Illinois is slowly and ponderously trying to figure out what this weird Tea Party thing is, and what use can be made of it, if any. Mutual wariness seems to be a pretty accurate way to describe the relationship.
(3) There is a desire among at least some African Americans for an alternative to the existing range of political choices in Illinois, which for them has been: Option A is the Democrat machine, and there is no Option B. There seems to also be a desire for a civil conversation with the Tea Party among some people, who are apparently not buying into the baseless lie about Tea Party “racism”. I don’t know where this will lead, but it is incredibly exciting.
(4) The recent budget deal is perceived by some as a victory for the Tea Party, making it credible and making Tea Party seem to be a serious factor in politics, like it or not, which is gaining in strength and importance. My sense is that the Tea Party membership is a lot more ambivalent about it, seeing the Boehner deal as more of the same old stuff, a defeat dressed as a victory. I think that is wrong. The deal was far from the needed serious reform, but serious reform cannot and will not be on the table until we get through at least one more election cycle. What the deal did accomplish was to halt the supposedly inevitable march toward higher spending and higher taxes. It put the focus on spending cuts and moving away from ever-bigger government. It means that the Obama vision of permanently bigger, more expensive and more intrusive government has been halted, for now. Like the Red Army stopping the Wehrmacht before the gates of Moscow, we are still years from a final victory. But it was the defeat of the life-threatening offensive that could have won the war at a single blow. Mr. Obama’s presidency peaked and began to slide back with the Boehner deal, I believe. It was at best an inflection point, but it may, over time, be seen as a very significant inflection point.
These are exciting times.