Talking with various friends these past weeks about the upcoming election, I was often put in mind of Matthew 13:42: ibi erit fletus et stridor dentium: There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. The primaries yesterday provided a preview of what I had in mind. “Oh, those awful tea-party candidates! They’re ruining everything.”
Exhibit A in the brief is Christine O’Donnell, the tea-party-endorsed candidate to who cleaned Michael Castle’s clock in the Republican Senate primary in Delaware. Castle, now 71, has been in politics since he was weaned — well, since 1966. Will he go out and get a real job now? Nobody knows. Early signs are that he is planning to take his marbles and march home in a huff. He certainly won’t be helping C. O’Donnell.
I say that Castle is a Republican. But he is not what you would call a conservative. Item: he supported the Obama administration’s cap and tax (formerly know and “cap and trade”) legislation last year. This indeed seems to have been the catalyst for the spirit of opposition among conservatives. In due course, that opposition threw up Christine O’Donnell as a challenger, much to the consternation of the Republican establishment, which went from regarding her as an unsavory distraction to a dangerous interloper who, by refusing to play by the rules, was jeopardizing the whole Republican come-back strategy.
I admit to feeling conflicted about this. Many of those friends I mentioned are in the “fletus et stridor dentium” crowd on this issue. They’re smart folks, and God knows they’re much savvier about politics than your humble correspondent. Why, even Karl Rove, than whom (in my book) no one is smarter about politics, concluded that, with O’Donnell’s victory, “this is not a race we’re going to be able to win.” Republican strategist Mike Murphy agreed: “I’m sad to say the Delaware primary results tonight are straight out of Harry Reid’s dream journal,” he said when O’Donnell’s victory was certain.
Among Republicans, anyway, it was Matthew 13:42 time, all over the place. For Michael Castle may have been a “moderate” (i.e., left-leaning) Republican, but at least he was one of us. He was also the Great White Hope in the Delaware Senate race. He was the establishment-anointed candidate who (so the pundits told us) might actually beat Chris Coons, the presumptive Democratic candidate, thereby recapturing “Joe Biden’s seat” (as the proprietary formula inevitably puts it) and, just possibly, the Senate itself for the Republicans.
Now here we are about to be cast into the old tenebras exteriores (Matthew 8:12), all because of folks like Sarah Palin, Christine O’Donnell, and Sharron Angle, the tea-partier who had the temerity to run and win in the Republican Senate primary in Nevada (how do you spell “Harry Reid”?) — why don’t they wise up and play the game as it ought to be played?
As I say, many of my friends feel this way. Whatever their fondness for the tea party as a special form of political theater, they are very worried that the movement is not ready for prime time when it comes to vetting candidates. Sure, they see that the Zeitgeist suddenly changed some months ago. At the end of 2008, it was full of Hope & Change. Now Obama is in free fall and many of the beautiful people who supported him are busy looking at their shoes and hoping they won’t be called on in class. This was shaping up to be a Republican autumn. Just look at the tea party convocations around the country! It will still be a Republican autumn, but not nearly so delicious as it might have been. O’Donnell. Angle. They’re embarrassments. Moreover, they can’t win. Karl Rove admitted it: O’Donnell, he said, is one of the party’s candidates who have “serious character problems, who cause ordinary voters who are not philosophically aligned with us to not vote for our candidates out of concern of what they said and what they do.” Fletus, I mean to say, et stridor dentium. Call the dentist!
I wish I knew where Karl got his crystal ball. I’d like to put in an order for the same model. I have never met anyone smarter about politics than he. Thinking back over his predictions, he has usually been right. Back when everyone assured me that Hillary Clinton was it in 2008, he came to a lunch I attended and warned that Obama would not only be much more difficult to beat but would also be much more dangerous. He got it in one.
Karl’s record of perspicacity gives me pause. Nevertheless, I wonder. I do not have any brief one way or the other about Ms. O’Donnell or Ms. Angle. I mean, I hope they both win, but I do not know enough about either to entertain the serious qualms that keep people like Karl Rove from a sound sleep. When I look at the recent primaries that have brought people like O’Donnell and Angle to the fore, I see not them only but a vast and growing movement of people who are disenchanted with business as usual in Washington. The primary focus of their disenchantment is the Democrats and their statist initiatives. But there is plenty of animus left over to cover the Republicans and their statist initiatives, too.
“Democracy,” Ronald Reagan observed, “is less a system of government than it is a system to keep government limited, unintrusive: A system of constraints on power to keep politics and government secondary to the important things in life, the true sources of value found only in family and faith.” Democrats may be the most egregious violators of that precept, but plenty of Republicans have followed suit. That’s the thing that scares people about the tea party. It operates outside the jurisdiction set down by the other parties, be they Democratic or Republican. All those sources of patronage, wells of political preferment, reservoirs of prestige, perquisites, and power: That’s what politics as usual is about. It has built up an impressive institutional structure. It’s worked, more or less, for many decades. And now this decentralized, grass-roots organization (in so far as it is an organization) threatens to upset the whole apple cart.
My friend Kevin Williamson got it just right, I think (h/t to Instapundit): What O’Donnell’s victory should really communicate, Kevin wrote at NRO, “is that the Right needs a lot more Club for Growth–style candidate-recruiting efforts. If conservatives do not like O’Donnell, then they should be out identifying better candidates to run against vulnerable RINOs — because somebody is going to run. These incumbent takedowns are going to inspire a lot of new people to get into electoral politics, many of them without the sort of experience or backgrounds that Establishment types are comfortable with. Power, like nature, abhors a vacuum.”
And what’s that other observation about power? The one from Lord Acton? The one about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely? I suspect that the establishment, whether its mascot is a donkey or an elephant, hasn’t really taken that on board. My friends are much more certain than I am about what it’s all going to mean in November. Let’s wait and see.