In a recent blog post I wrote:
If the GOP cannot find some way to align itself with the Tea Party and its ethos, then it will be swept away.
This contention, as well as the title of the post — “Tea Party Versus Socialist Party” — generated a fair amount of discussion, requiring, I think, further elaboration on the ideas involved.
The political calculus is simple. Somewhere after George W. Bush’s reelection, it became obvious to the conservative wing of the GOP that Bush and party elders were straying further and further off the reservation of conservative principle — if, indeed, they had been on that reservation in the first place. The growing protest led to a sharp drop in support among conservatives and libertarians for Bush and his party, and was further aggravated by national party and presidential support for folks like Arlen Specter, as well as issues like amnesty for illegal aliens which Bush and others like John McCain pushed very hard.
The immediate upshot was the “unexpected” loss of the House and Senate in 2006 to the Democrats, as conservatives and libertarians stayed home in droves. The ultimate outcome was the crushing defeat of John McCain in 2008 by Barack Obama, as once again the conservative and libertarian segments of the GOP, otherwise known as the base, sat out the contest in even larger numbers than 2006.
I was one of those who recommended that we withhold our support from the GOP. I felt this was the only strategy that stood any chance of forcing the party to put conservative principles at the forefront of Republican policy once again. I predicted that an Obama administration with heavy majorities in the House and Senate would overreach to such an extent they would damage their own brand at least as heavily as the GOP had already tarnished their own reputation.
And — oh, yes — somewhere in there the tea parties began to take shape at the grassroots level. Here were groups of fiscally responsible, conservative, and libertarian citizens bent on reclaiming some space for their own principles in a world where the leadership of both major parties seemed to reject those principles in favor of minor disagreements over how quickly to advance the powers of the ever-growing (and taxing and spending) state.
Both Democrat and Republican leaderships misunderstood and mishandled the rise of the tea parties. The Democrats proclaimed the protests as astroturf (phony demos bought and paid for by GOP operatives) or, if genuine, no more than minor temper tantrums by bitter, clinging bumpkins of no political account. The GOP leadership, suspicious of what it perceived as a bumptious threat to its own dominance, tried to co-opt the tea partiers as support for precisely the same old policies the tea parties wanted to overturn.
Neither major party took the tea parties seriously on their own terms. That all changed with a special election in upstate New York, an event that made plain the glaring new fault lines in American politics. The GOP supported a very liberal (by GOP standards) candidate named Dede Scozzafava. The Democrats supported Bill Owens, a standard-issue liberal candidate.
The differences between the two candidates did not appear large. In response to this (in tea party eyes) lack of real choice, a third candidate, Doug Hoffman, entered the race under the banner of the Conservative Party, after losing out to Scozzafava in what some claimed was a rigged selection process. Hoffman’s candidacy became a cause among tea partiers nationwide, as well as a significant segment of the right blogosphere, which pitched in with a massive fundraising effort that allowed Hoffman to compete effectively with his opponents and their major party funding. When the dust settled, Hoffman had lost to the Democrat by 2.5%, after Scozzafava lived up to her RINO reputation by dropping out at the last moment and endorsing the Democrat over Hoffman.
For the first time (if not publicly, at least in private councils), both party leaderships began to take the tea parties seriously. Concurrently, Barack Obama’s popularity began to leak away, as he pushed ever more encompassing policies that, to many, verged on hardcore socialism. Then came the earthquake that rocked everyone’s world: the election of Scott Brown to the old “Kennedy seat” in Massachusetts and the destruction of the Democrats’ filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. The tea parties had rallied around Brown’s candidacy and raised millions for him almost overnight. It was a flexing of political muscle to equal the support the far left had put together for Obama in 2008.
Which brings us to today. No one can doubt that the tea parties — and the fiscal conservatism and respect for traditional conservative and libertarian values they represent — are a legitimate and growing force in American politics. The question is: to what purpose will this force be directed? Will it become a third party, on the order of the powerful but short-lived Perot uprising that led to both the election of Bill Clinton and the destruction of fifty years of Democrat dominance in the House of Representatives but eventually faded away? Or will it wield its influence to retake the GOP and reinvigorate the Grand Old Party?
Today the heart of the Democrat Party stands exposed as beating to a socialist drummer. The party no longer has a “conservative” wing in any meaningful sense, and as such, would easily fit into any European-style “center-left” designation, an appellation best translated as “socialist but not doctrinaire Marxist.”
The GOP has not yet decided what sort of blood runs through its own veins, which brings us to my contention that if it continues to resist the tea parties, if it continues its business-as-usual policies of endorsing and supporting candidates who are noxious to tea party principles, then it will be swept away. It will force the tea partiers into the formation of a third party that could guarantee Democrat domination for a generation unless the tea party movement supplants the GOP, much as the GOP supplanted the Whigs 160 years ago.
One of the biggest problems in American politics is the blurring of principle inherent in the strategies of both major parties. The Democrats pretend to a conservatism they actually loathe, but which inattentive voters think the party supports. That faux conservatism is, of course, never actually translated into legislation, the bulk of which is almost uniformly socialist in nature. The GOP, on the other hand, pushes legislation only somewhat less socialist — or statist, if you will — than the Democrats, on the toxic notion that their base has nowhere to go, so the leadership is free to enter into a legislative bidding war for votes beyond the base. This ends up giving the American electorate a choice between a socialist party and a “not quite as socialist” party.
America would enjoy a much healthier and more vigorous politics if the tea parties either become the dominant force in the GOP or sweep it away entirely, so that for the first time in at least a hundred years Americans are given a clear-cut choice between a socialist (Democrat) party and a liberty-minded, fiscally responsible party that is represented by the tea party movement. At the end of the day the names don’t matter so much, but the policies and principles certainly do.