In Sacramento, Tea Party organizer Mark Meckler singled out California GOP Chair Ron Nehring for waffling on proposed $16 billion tax hikes. The crowd of 5,000 greeted Nehring -- who unsuccessfully tried to hitch his wagon to the Tea Party movement -- with a roar of boos and catcalls. Speaker after speaker lambasted Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for abandoning fiscal-conservative principles. The loudest chant of the day: "Throw them out."
In Madison, Wis., GOP Rep. Paul Ryan -- hyped as a conservative "rock star" -- was well received. But I heard from staunch fiscal-conservative constituents who refused to be silent about Ryan's complicity. He gave one of the most hysterical speeches in the rush to pass TARP last fall; voted for the auto bailout; and voted with the Barney Frank-Nancy Pelosi AIG bonus-bashing stampede. Milwaukee blogger Nick Schweitzer wrote: "He ought to be apologizing for his previous votes, not pretending he was being responsible the entire time, but I don't see one bit of regret for what he did previously. And I'll be damned if I'm going to let him get away with it."
Other Tea Party participants pointed out that Newt Gingrich, who jumped aboard the bandwagon, flip-flopped on TARP in the space of a week last September and made common cause with Al Gore and Nancy Pelosi in ads calling for immediate action on "climate change."
Before the grassroots Tea Party movement took them by surprise, Beltway GOP strategists argued fervently that the party's traditional focus on taxes and spending had become outdated. The re-branders pitched their own expansive ideas to replace the anti-tax-and-spend agenda and inspire new voters. These included Gingrich's "green conservatism," David Frum's proposal to raise carbon taxes, and open-borders Republicans' plans for alternative forms of amnesty.
Newsflash: Eco-zealotry and in-state tuition discounts for illegal aliens didn't bring out thousands of first-time activists on the streets. Stay-at-home moms weren't up all night making signs that read "Tax me more, please!"
What resonated on Tax Day were nonpartisan calls to roll back pork, hold the line on taxing and spending, end the endless government bailouts, and stop the congressional steamrollers that have pushed through mountains of legislation without deliberation. This is a teachable moment for GOP public relations peddlers in Washington. While they search for the Holy Grail of Re-branding in tony salons and country club conferences, the agenda for 2010 is smacking them in the face. It's the three T's, stupid: Too Many Taxes, Trillions in Debt, and Transparency.
The GOP path to reclaiming power lies with candidates who can make a credible case that they will support and defend fiscal responsibility. That means acting on fiscal-conservative principles now, not paying lip service later. The reckonable forces of the Tea Party movement didn't let opportunists escape accountability on Tax Day. The GOP shouldn't assume they'll get a pass on Election Day, either. As one of the most popular Tea Party signs read: "You can't fix stupid, but you can vote it out."