There are actually two tea party movements in America today: one you've read about that is not that important and one you've not read about that could become really important if the right politician understood how to tap into it.
The tea party that has gotten all the attention, the amorphous, self-generated protest against the growth in government and the deficit, is what I'd actually call the "tea kettle movement" -- because all it's doing is letting off steam.
That is not to say that the energy behind it is not authentic (it clearly is) or that it won't be electorally impactful (it clearly might be). But affecting elections and affecting America's future are two different things. Based on all I've heard from this movement, it feels to me like it's all steam and no engine. It has no plan to restore America to greatness.
The tea kettle movement can't have a positive impact on the country because it has both misdiagnosed America's main problem and hasn't even offered a credible solution for the problem it has identified. How can you take a movement seriously that says it wants to cut government spending by billions of dollars but won't identify the specific defense programs, Social Security, Medicare or other services it's ready to cut -- let alone explain how this will make us more competitive and grow the economy? And how can you take seriously a movement that sat largely silent while the Bush administration launched two wars and a new entitlement, Medicare prescription drugs -- while cutting taxes -- but is now, suddenly, mad as hell about the deficit and won't take it anymore from President Barack Obama? Say what? Where were you folks for eight years?
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The issues that upset the tea kettle movement -- debt and bloated government -- are actually symptoms of our real problem, not causes. They are symptoms of a country in a state of incremental decline and losing its competitive edge, because our politics has become just another form of sports entertainment, our Congress a forum for legalized bribery and our main lawmaking institutions divided by toxic partisanship to the point of paralysis.
The important tea party movement, which stretches from centrist Republicans to independents right through to centrist Democrats, understands this at a gut level and is looking for a leader with three characteristics.
First, a patriot: a leader who is more interested in fighting for his country than his party.
Second, a leader who persuades Americans that he or she actually has a plan not just to cut taxes or pump stimulus, but to do something much larger -- to make America successful, thriving and respected again.
And third, someone with the ability to lead in the face of uncertainty and not simply whine about how tough things are -- a leader who believes his job is not to read the polls but to change the polls.
Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg told me that when he does focus groups today this is what he hears: "People think the country is in trouble and that countries like China have a strategy for success and we don't. They will follow someone who convinces them that they have a plan to make America great again. That is what they want to hear. It cuts across Republicans and Democrats."
To me, that is a plan that starts by asking: What is America's core competency and strategic advantage, and how do we nurture it? Answer: It is our ability to attract, develop and unleash creative talent. That means men and women who invent, build and sell more goods and services that make people's lives more productive, healthy, comfortable, secure and entertained than any other country.
Leadership today is about how the U.S. government attracts and educates more of that talent and then enacts the laws, regulations and budgets that empower that talent to take its products and services to scale, sell them around the world -- and create good jobs here in the process. Without that, we can't afford the health care or defense we need.
This is the plan the real tea party wants from its president. To implement it would require us to actually raise some taxes -- on, say, gasoline -- and cut others -- like payroll taxes and corporate taxes. It would require us to overhaul our immigration laws so we can better control our borders, let in more knowledge workers and retain those skilled foreigners going to college here. And it would require us to reduce some services -- like Social Security -- while expanding others, like education and research for a 21st-century economy.
In other words, it will require a very smart, subtle and focused plan to use our now diminishing resources in the most efficient way possible to get back to our core competency. That is the only long-term solution to our problem -- to grow our way out of debt with American workers who are more empowered and educated to compete.
Any tea party that says the simple answer is just shrinking government and slashing taxes might be able to tip the midterm elections in its direction. But it can't tip America in the right direction. There is a tea party for that, but it's still waiting for a leader.
THE NEW YORK TIMES