- - Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Democrats didn’t understand the Tea Party when it launched in 2009, and they don’t understand it now. They proclaim that if Republicans nominate Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney, the Tea Party will have failed. They could not be more wrong, and their transparent attempt to dispirit conservatives won’t work. Those outmatched liberals who received a good old-fashioned shellacking from the Tea Party in 2010 are hardly in a position to define its future success.

First, however, conservatives must face reality and choose one of these three options: (1) Decide between Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Romney, (2) devise some near-magical electoral path in the 11th hour that leads to a different nominee or (3) brace for Barack Obama’s second term. A rule to remember: Manage the situation you have, not the one you want, or someone else will manage it for you.

America’s last, best hope is the Tea Party. This movement is not some third party or nominating body or even some roster of specific people. Instead, the Tea Party is more of a state of mind, and it’s time for all Republicans to fully embrace its guiding principles of constitutional fidelity, limited government and free-market capitalism. After all, racing toward the bipartisan cliff of complete economic collapse will end just the same whether it’s at the Democrats’ breakneck speed or whether the Republicans can “compromise” the car down to a little slower pace before it plummets.

The path to a 2012 conservative victory is before us, elucidated by an unapologetic champion of freedom - economic and otherwise - upon whose shoulders we stand today.

One of history’s minor tragedies is that Nobel economist Milton Friedman did not live long enough to see the advent of the Tea Party era, a movement his lifelong work continues to inspire. The man who guided Ronald Reagan’s conservative uprising realized that elections were not simply about men but rather about ideas. The 2012 election must be about principles, not personalities.

“People have a great misconception in this way,” Friedman explained. “They think the way they solve things is by electing the right people. It’s nice to elect the right people, but that isn’t the way you solve things. The way you solve things is by making it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right things.”

As the race teeters between Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Romney, conservatives must make it politically profitable for either or both to do the right things. Embrace the Tea Party principles, which are - not coincidentally - America’s founding principles. If either man hopes to have the enthusiastic support of the Tea Party - and he’ll need it to beat President Obama in the general election - he should enthusiastically join the movement.

It’s time to take the crony out of capitalism. It’s time to end all forms of corporate welfare. No more bailouts, subsidies, waivers, targeted tax credits, guaranteed loans or protective tariffs. Renounce them all. It’s time to restructure our tax code fundamentally from an impossibly complex instrument of social engineering to a simple, flat and fair system in which we all play by the same rules and are judged by the same standards. Be bold. It’s time to unshackle the economy from the excessively burdensome and demonstrably failed regulatory state. Dismantle it.

Now is not the time for timidity. No more tinkering around the edges. If Herman Cain’s meteoric rise taught us nothing else, it showed that Americans crave bold, transformative ideas and will richly reward them politically.

Unfortunately, both Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Romney have, at times, forsaken conservative principles. It’s true. The offending list is long: Romneycare, bailouts, ethanol subsidies, government-sponsored enterprises and more. It’s mea culpa time, not for the mere sake of groveling, but instead to swallow their pride and convince voters that they won’t repeat those mistakes. Downgraded America simply can’t afford it.

Both Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Romney are exceptionally capable leaders. Conservatives have reason for optimism that either man could be an enormously successful president and usher in a new era of American prosperity and freedom. But based on their own histories, skepticism certainly is justified. Should one of these men become our next president, will he steadfastly embrace our founding principles? Or will he be too clever by half and succumb to big-government temptations? Will he fall for Washington’s siren song of bipartisanship, which has bloated our government and bankrupted our nation? Or will he instead put his trust in free Americans to guide their own lives?

Our best hope is for the Tea Party to make it politically profitable for Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Romney to choose wisely between their own alternate futures and to make it politically disastrous to do otherwise. The Tea Party is a powerful band of happy warriors but not blind followers.

It’s time for conservatives to quit playing checkers and start playing chess. Stop sabotaging our own candidates and instead create a path that rewards conservatism no matter who our nominee is. Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney are both smart enough to know that while the Tea Party lights a path to the White House, the harsh reality follows that should one of them receive its support and betray it, his presidency would be over before it began.

This is the genius of Milton Friedman and his concept of political profit even for the wrong people. This is the path to a 2012 conservative victory and beyond.

Dr. Milton R. Wolf, a Washington Times columnist, is a board-certified diagnostic radiologist and President Obama’s cousin. He blogs at miltonwolf.com.

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