Jan Scruggs
Memorial founder

Jan Scruggs

Founder and president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.

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Ideas are enduring

Q: The tea-party movement doesn't want a single leader. After all, the last thing it wants is to become part of the "establishment." But in recent primaries, tea-party candidates ended up battling each other, enabling some incumbents to win. Does a successful organization need a leader to steer the boat? Or is it enough for the upstarts to oppose the "old guard" on principle and to agree on some key ideas?

Political movements that coalesce around a charismatic leader do tend to meet their demise when the leader loses his interest in continuing. I was a great fan of John Anderson of Illinois, a fiscal conservative who was often compared to the quintessential Rockefeller Republican. In the 1980 presidential race, he had a one-on-one debate with fellow candidate Ronald Reagan. The election was not a success for Anderson, however, as he gathered less than 7 percent of the vote, while Reagan went on to completely rout President Jimmy Carter.

Anderson did make an impact in the court of public opinion and became an inspiring speaker at college campuses. Yet attention to his issues and to him slowly faded from the national scene.

Another example was H. Ross Perot. He did far better with the public, getting enough votes to have a real impact on the presidential campaign. In the 1992 election, he received over 18 percent of the popular vote, but no electoral college votes. Yet he did get people excited, and his message of a broken Congress with out-of-control spending resonated with many. It is generally accepted that the ultimate impact of his candidacy was to cause President George Herbert Walker Bush to lose to William Jefferson Clinton.

Teddy Roosevelt was a true charismatic leader who in 1912 ran for the presidency from his newly formed Progressive, or "Bull Moose" Party and carried a number of states, including Pennsylvania and California. He was actually shot in the chest during a speech in October 1912 and, true to his character, finished his 90-minute speech before seeking medical care. The injury took him off the campaign trail and may have affected his chances in the race. His Bull Moose Party eventually folded after 1916. He died in 1919.

The Tea Party movement does not have a charismatic leader, but it does have an appealing message. In the marketplace of ideas, Tea Party members have made an impact decrying the deficit spending that they and others predict will lead to dire consequences for our society. Overall, this is a very Republican group, and an Angus Reid poll conducted this month found that 39 percent of Americans agree with the core policies of the National Tea Party movement, and 29 percent believe it will have a positive effect on American politics. Their message -- and votes -- cannot be ignored. We shall see about the staying power of this political movement.

By Jan Scruggs  |  June 17, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Upstarts vs. veterans Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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