The most significant phenomenon in politics this year has been the ability of conservative "Tea Party" activists to secure nominations for largely unknown right-wing candidates. These candidates have repeatedly defeated incumbent Republicans and candidates supported for office by the party's establishment institutions such as the National Republican Senate Committee.
In six Senate races this year, Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Nevada and Utah, the Republican party has attempted to rally support around an experienced and relatively moderate incumbent or new candidate only to see that candidate fall in the party primary to a far more strident and less-experienced challenger.
The pundit world is abuzz with all kinds of commentary regarding what these developments mean. For my two cents, I want to discuss an article about the Tea Party that appeared in the Washington Post last month that talks about what the Tea Party is and what it is not.
I'm only going to address two points in Dave Weigel's article, Five myths about the 'tea party.' These are the "myths" that the Tea Party is racist, and that it hurts the Republican party. Here we go:
Weigel myth #2: The tea party is racist.
"Yes, there are racists in the tea party, and they make themselves known. But tea party activists usually root them out."
Here Weigel suggests that although a couple of Tea Party leaders have used racist rhetoric, the party at large is not racist because those leaders were shown the door after making their racist thoughts public. Well I'm sorry, but the fact that the party excommunicates leaders who embarrass them in public doesn't necessarily mean that the party faithful actual disagree with the ideas of those leaders. After all, the people who joined the Springboro, Ohio tea party did so even though the party's organizer is the kind of person who uses Twitter to send messages like, "Illegals everywhere today! So many spics makes me feel like a speck. Grrr. Wheres my gun!?"
Digging a little deeper, we find a survey by the University of Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race & Sexuality, which suggests, "that people who are Tea Party supporters have a higher probability of being racially resentful than those who are not Tea Party supporters," according to Christopher Parker, who directed the study. "The Tea Party is not just about politics and size of government. The data suggests it may also be about race."
Weigel myth #4: The tea party hurts the GOP.
"Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), who lost his primary race to a tea party-backed candidate, has made the media rounds to accuse the movement and some of its heroes, such as Glenn Beck, of poisoning politics."
"But in every political cycle there are "bad" candidates who say the wrong things -- and with the right electorate, they still win. The tea party movement is giving Republicans a dream of an electorate, one in which surveys find more GOP-inclined voters enthusiastic."
Now here's where I really take issue with Mr. Weigel. First of all, his line of reasoning is spurious. His conclusion is that if conservatives seem very energized this year, it must be because of that Tea Party you've been hearing so much about. I see no reason to believe that conservatives are any more energized this year than they would be in any year in which the country is holding a mid-term election while we have a Democrat in the White House and while we're having severe economic problems.
Second of all, (and the heart of the matter) is that the Tea Party IS hurting the Republican party is a number of ways, all of which I will be glad to describe in loving detail.
1. Tea Party nominees support ideas that are not popular with the public at large.
Most or all of the candidates that the tea party has helped to nominate support the following ideas:
* Extend all of the Bush tax cuts for the very wealthy.
* Repeal the new Health Care Law.
* Replace Medicare with vouchers.
* Amend the Constitution to deny citizenship to children of illegal immigrants.
* Privatize social security.
Ok, here's the problem: the American public does not, in fact, support ANY of this agenda. President Bush made social security privatization the cornerstone of his second term in office, and the idea went over like a lead balloon. Sure, a lot of Tea Party candidates are going to win this year. But if they give the Republican caucuses in Congress a core of elected officials whose ideas are deeply unpopular, the only reasonable conclusion is that Tea Party candidates are doing the Republican party serious, long-term damage.
2. The Tea Party has instigated Civil War among Republicans.
In one corner of the metaphorical boxing ring, we have the National Republican Senate Committee, who have taken great pains to promote experienced, popular, and relatively moderate candidates for this year's competitive Senate races. In the opposite corner, we have the Tea Party, Sarah Palin and Senator Jim DeMint, who have been extremely successful in undoing all of the work of the NRSC by securing nominations for office for right-wing nut jobs whose ideas are unpopular with the electorate at large.
All of this has resulted in a situation where, (1.) the Republican party is wasting millions of dollars in resources fighting primary battles, so those resources aren't available to fight Democrats and (2.) we have a lot of bitter recriminations among conservatives themselves. Karl Rove and Sean Hannity attacking each other? Wow.
3. The Tea Party will cause the Republicans to lose elections, even in 2010
The most prominent supporter of Tea Party candidates among Republican elected officials is Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who said, "I would rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who really believe in principles of limited government free markets, free people, than to have 60 that don't have a set of beliefs."
Apparently, DeMint wasn't kidding. He's been a supporter of political upstart Christine O'Donnell, the right-wing candidate who won a surprise victory over popular moderate Congressman Mike Castle for the GOP's Senate nomination in the open-seat race in Delaware. Now, in all of the other major Tea-Party-versus-Republican-establishment primary battles this year, the resulting victories by Tea Party candidate have not necessarily harmed the party's prospects for victory in November.
But in Delaware, it's a different story. Mike Castle was virtually certain to win Joe Biden's old Senate seat for the Republicans, while O'Donnell is almost certainly a loser versus Democrat Chris Coons in November. It's even possible that failing to win this race with cost Republicans control of the Senate.
The message from Tea Party Republicans is clear. They aren't interested in building a majority coalition of conservatives and moderates. They also aren't interested in tempering any of their more strident views in order to broaden their appeal. In the long run, this is not a strategy that leads not to power, but to oblivion.