The Wall Street Journal characterizes the inability of incumbent Robert Bennett to secure the GOP nomination for the Utah Senate seat as “an early, if imperfect, test of the tea-party movement’s power … The remaining candidates, businessman Tim Bridgewater and lawyer Mike Lee, will compete in a June 22 primary. Running on populist platforms, they both have backing from tea-party supporters and have pledged to reduce the federal government’s size if elected.”
Many delegates, who tend to be more ideological than the average GOP voter, said they felt Mr. Bennett had been in Washington for too long. Populist candidates criticized the senator for trying to increase the scope of government by voting for TARP to provide funds to rescue strapped banks and by co-authoring a health-care plan with a Democratic colleague that included a requirement that individuals buy insurance for themselves.
Mr. Bennett lost his nomination despite his efforts earlier in the day. He had 2008 GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, one of Utah’s most-popular figures, introduce him before a speech to state delegates. The senator told delegates that his seniority in Washington made him the best candidate to represent Utah. “I understand how to do it,” he said. “Don’t take a chance on a newcomer. Keep the veteran on the floor when you’re playing a championship game.”
That still wasn’t enough to woo delegates such as Carol Jeppson.
The game was redefined in a single place and time from “one of Republicans versus Democrats” (Romney’s reference) to that of “Small Government versus Big Government”. In isolation the Bennett defeat is insignificant, but it now raises the wider question of whether the ‘Smaller Government’ idea can catch on. If it does then it has the potential to redefine the political landscape in ways that are both a threat and opportunity to different communities.
The Tea Parties represent an asymmetric threat to political organizations optimized for party-line warfare. The threat is no longer across the aisle but outside the building. As such, two possibilities suggest themselves. The first is that the Washington elite will circle the wagons, bury their minor differences and concentrate on keeping the money and power flowing to the capital. A threat from outside the building is after all, a threat to everybody inside the building. The other possibility is that enough members of the elite will realize that jig is up and strive to accommodate themselves to the new reality. In the coming months we are likely to see both gambits. Some politicians will opt to tap the tide; others will seek to master it.
That new reality is driven by economics. The real problem is that Washington — and Brussels globally considered — is running out of Other People’s Money (OPM). The Tea Parties are not the cause but the expression of the underlying problem. By all the standards of power the Tea Parties are a nothing. But that is to misunderstand their nature. The political elite can infiltrate the Tea Parties, revile it in the press and put it down as hard as they can, but like the weighted doll it will rebound incessantly because the deficit, unemployment and the declining confidence in the elite system will keep pushing it up. The Tea Parties are the elite’s dark political dual. The only way they can vanquish the doppelganger is to leave the stage themselves.
The evolution of the Tea Party “threat” in the media has followed the classic trajectory of recognizing asymmetric threats: it was at first dismissed, then denigrated, then patronizingly understood and is now going through the stage of being set up as a national security threat boogeyman, when as it turns out, its main effect so far has been to eliminate a three-term Republican candidate for Senator. At some point the Washington insiders will understand they are facing a real, bona fide political challenge. But although the elite may go out clinging with their fingernails to the carpets of their offices their real enemy will always be not the Tea Partiers but the repo men. It’s the lack of money that will be their ultimate downfall.
The Bible says the love of money is the root of all evil. “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” But the political Bible says the lack of money is the root of all electoral failure. Having run out of OPM, the current towers of power are despite their outward strength, seriously cracked. For that reason Utah is probably the beginning and not the end. The WSJ article ends with this observation:
Another delegates said they wanted to give another candidates a chance in the Senate. “I gave him two terms,” said 68-year-old Gordon Jones, minutes after he voted for Mr. Bridgewater in the first round of voting. “He got three. That’s enough.”
Maybe the party is over, but not the Tea Party.