Saturday, December 12, 2009

The tea party revolution: principle and purity

I'll be the first to admit it: if the Democratic Party doesn't get our act together, we're going to get killed in the 2010 elections. The Republicans have jumped ahead in Gallup's generic Congressional ballot. President Obama's approval rating has been on a long, slow slide since peaking this past spring. Senate Democrats' attempts to pass a health care bill are looking increasingly farcical.

On the positive side, the fractiousness of the right in this country seems to be increasing even as their electoral prospects appear to be improving. It's beginning to remind me a bit of what's happened to the political left in Canada.

Canada is a very liberal country. There have been four national parliamentary elections in Canada since 2000, and in each one the candidates on the left have received nearly two-thirds of the vote. So how did Stephen Harper's Conservative Party "win" the last two elections? It's because the Conservatives are the only right-wing party in Canada, while the vote on the left if split between no fewer than four major parties: the Liberals, the New Democrats, Bloc Quebec and the Green Party. If progressives ever want to govern in Canada again, one might think it wise for them to unite under one banner (or at least cut it down to two or three banners).

The United States is never going to develop into a multi-party system. And yet I see some hope that squabbling on the right may keep conservatives from achieving the kind of unity they need to get back into power. A new three-way ballot offered by the Rasmussen poll showed the generic Democratic candidate garnering 36% of the vote, compared to 23% for a "Tea Party" conservative candidate and only 18% for a Republican.

This poll mirrors the recent congressional race in New York's 23rd district, in which Democrat Bill Owens won a surprise victory because conservative support was split between the Republican nominee and the Conservative Party nominee. New York has a unique system in which third parties are allowed to cross-nominate the candidates of the major parties, so for the most part the race in the 23rd can be seen as a fluke that won't be repeated in a lot of other places.

The Washington Post this week provided a good summary of the mixed feelings that the Republican world has regarding the Tea Party conservative activist movement: "Publicly, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele and other GOP leaders praise the tea party movement as a crucial component of the party's base that will help Republicans make substantial gains in 2010. But the push from the right has also worsened infighting over the GOP's course."

Even if the GOP doesn't have to worry about the tea part activists backing third party candidates, it's clear that the movement is still going to cause the Republican establishment all kinds of headaches. In Florida, the National Republican Senate Committee has backed popular, moderate Governor Charlie Crist for next year's open-seat Senate race. Unfortunately for them, party activists are backing very conservative state representative Mark Rubio for the nomination. At a minimum, this will mean an expensive and divisive primary battle for the nomination that the party would prefer to avoid. At a maximum, Rubio will actually get the nomination and prove unpalatable to Florida voters in the general election and hand the seat to the Democratic nominee. The same thing is happening in Kentucky, where the establishment Republican candidate for Senate Trey Grayon is being challenged for the nomination by the libertarian Dr. Paul Rand. A recent poll shows Rand with a small lead to get the nomination. While Grayson would probably be favored to win in the general election over the Democratic nominee, Rand would not.

The Republican base is clearly moving to the right. Hopefully this movement will alienate more voters than it attracts, because right now Democratic prospects for 2010 election are not very bright.