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Anti-government movement shouldn't be anti-governing, says former lawmaker

The Tea Party eventually must become part of the political process to be effective, says moderate Republican Tom Davis.

What do moderate Republican voices make of the Tea Party movement? Former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., now president and CEO of the Republican Mainstreet Partnership, sees it as an energetic manifestation of "genuine Americana." The Tea Parties present a real challenge not just to Democrats, but to Republican leaders who must embrace the movement's frustrations if they want to reclaim a governing voice.

Davis recently spoke with NationalJournal.com about the movement's potential, Sarah Palin and electoral strategy for mainstream Republicans. Edited excerpts follow.

NJ: You said that Tea Party groups "probably couldn't govern a one-car funeral," but that the Republican Party needs their energy. How are they supposed to use this energy while appealing to moderates?

Davis: Teabaggers represent a general frustration in the electorate right now, with unemployment where it is, with debt and taxes. It's important they become a part of the political process.... To be successful, they can't be permanent outsiders. It's hard to come in and govern and tear Rome down without building something up.

We have to take advantage of this frustration. We have to listen to what they're saying, and, to some extent, take the ideas that they represent and try weave them into the structure in some governable fashion. That's a challenge, but if the Republican Party is going to be successful, that's what we've got to do.

NJ: Could the Tea Party be co-opted by the political establishment?

Davis: Politicians are always looking for a parade to lead, and this is a parade. You have politicians and different political groups trying to jump out in front and co-opt these groups. I don't think they can be co-opted, at the end of day. I think it's genuine grassroots, it's genuine frustration. Political leaders have to pay attention to that in a democracy.

NJ: How serious is the risk of Tea Party candidates throwing elections to Democrats?

Davis: The charge to the Republican Party is to get all of the dissonant elements in the electorate under their banner. Democrats control the House and the Senate and the presidency. So the outlet for voter frustration you want to make the Republican Party. You don't want to have different elements that people are channeling their anxieties about the current administration into. That breaks up the coalition.

NJ: Sarah Palin headlined the Tea Party convention in Nashville. There's obviously some calculation in her moves.

Davis: Palin represents, I think, the anti-establishment. She brings in the social groups, which is a lot of energy right there. And then when you put that together with the Tea Party, that's a pretty good-sized coalition within the Republican Party.

To a lot of the more educated, elite voters, she represents somebody who wasn't quite ready for prime time when she ran for vice president. Not her fault, but she was put in a position where they weren't sure she had the necessary level of experience and competence at that point, and quitting as governor after two years just hurts even more on the experience side....

The more the elites pick on her -- she's an attractive candidate, she's articulate -- she becomes a symbol for the outliers in the political system, because she's been attacked by everybody they don't like.

NJ: Why will the Tea Party succeed this November? Why will it fail?

Davis: If it succeeds, it's because the frustrations that were initially exhibited by the group have not been addressed by government, and the problems have become worse. Sometimes the need for something like this is so overwhelming that there's just no force that can stop it, despite the fact it may be factionalized and disorganized. If it fails, it's because government has co-opted some of these areas, and the fact that you couldn't get leaders together to recognize what the coalition needed to be.

But what the Tea Party stands for is going to be a part of the midterm election. Much of that will be done under the Republican umbrella, because these frustrations on taxation and the debt and everything else really fall against the incumbent party. And the incumbent party right now happens to be the Democratic Party. They are owning outcomes, which they would argue maybe they didn't produce. But they're in charge right now.