Predictably, Karl Rove, along with other commentators, has proclaimed that the “national Tea Party took a beating” in the 24 June primary elections. But is that really what happened?
A good case can be made that it’s not. If we consider the four key elections in which the electoral power of “the Tea Party” was supposed to be a factor, there’s less “there” there than it seems – or, at least, than it would seem if we accepted the “Tea Party” characterization at face value.
The “national Tea Party” strawman
For one thing, there is no “national Tea Party” in a singular, unified sense. Rove may not be responsible for the headline of his WSJ opinion piece, and I imagine, since he’s a smart guy, that he knows there is no unified national Tea Party. There’s a nation-wide movement, which is by no means unified if you start unpacking policy positions. The main rallying points are broad principles: a preference for limiting government, restoring constitutionalism, and operating from a bias in favor of freedom – intellectual, religious, and economic.
The unity on principle is important, but it’s not as operationally useful for politics as unity of electoral effort (or even of policy platform). And of these latter elements there is none, among Tea Party or other limited-government, constitutionalist groups.
A few high-profile names serve as rallying factors – Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz – but for electoral politics, it matters that there is no such thing as a centrally organized political-party machine, or even a plugged-in set of PACs. The outreach of the Palin PAC, for example, is not necessarily to the long-serving local-party officials in any given city or county, whereas the outreach of Karl Rove’s American Crossroads PAC is.
Between the motley gaggle of limited-government activists and the GOP establishment, there’s nothing but asymmetry: the less-organized, non-plugged-in versus the well-organized plugged-in. That gives the establishment the natural advantage we would expect it to have.
This brings us to a second important point about the 24 June primary. Only two of the key GOP face-offs involved a pitched confrontation between heavily-backed, limited-government “Tea Party” candidates and establishment GOP candidates. We’ll look first at the two races that did not involve such confrontations, and therefore were not tests of Tea Party electoral power.
“Tea Party” confrontations that weren’t
One was the Oklahoma primary for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Tom Coburn. The choice there didn’t involve a GOP establishment candidate – what limited-government voters would call a RINO – at all. Jim Lankford, the incumbent of the Oklahoma 5th district Congressional seat, was elected to office as a limited-government conservative and has retained high popularity on that basis in the nation’s reddest state. His opponent, T.W. Shannon, is also popular and has excellent limited-government-conservative credentials, but he doesn’t represent a meaningful alternative to Lankford. Oklahomans weren’t voting for the “establishment” GOP by voting heavily for Lankford, which is what they did.
In Colorado, the GOP gubernatorial primary had Tom Tancredo facing off with the more-establishment Bob Beauprez – and with Scott Gessler and Mike Kopp, who rounded out a four-way race that produced a “winner” but by no means a candidate with a big mandate.
At least half of America’s Tea Party sympathizers have just rolled their eyes and muttered, “Tancredo. Right.” He’s not a bad guy, but neither is he a rock-star-level big name draw. And to proclaim that he’s a major standard-bearer for “the Tea Party” would be to misunderstand both Tancredo and the Tea Party.
There are also two other factors at work: first, that Tancredo made little effort to actually campaign; and second, that the vote was meaningfully split among the four candidates. Beauprez eked out his plurality with 30% of the vote; Tancredo pulled down 27% (again, without trying), Gessler 23%, and Kopp 20%.
The Tea Party didn’t have a “great conservative hope” candidate in the Colorado race – and unpacking the meaning of the vote distribution isn’t going to reveal a ringing endorsement for the GOP establishment in any case.
Manipulation and dirty tricks are the new “campaigning”
Consider now the two races that did involve pitched confrontations between establishment candidates and challengers backed by limited-government and Tea Party groups. What we discover is a campaign of dirty tricks waged in each case by (or on behalf of) the establishment incumbent against the challenger: falsehoods, insinuations, scare tactics, and even (in one of the races) making common cause with Democrats to defame and outvote the upstart.
In the New York district 22 race, where the Republican winner will run unopposed in November, conservative Claudia Tenney challenged Richard Hanna, the third most liberal Republican in the House, according to National Journal. In the final weeks of the campaign, PACs began blanketing TV and radio with ads misrepresenting Tenney’s voting record in the New York legislature: implying that she was not really a conservative and alleging that she had voted to raise taxes.
But as Rusty Weiss pointed out at Legal Insurrection, the PACs behind the ads weren’t conservative PACs at all. They were engaging in “false flag” attacks on Tenney: a form of utterly cynical, tactical harassment to weaken her support from a base the PACs have no sympathy with and want to defeat anyway. (See Michelle Malkin’s piece here for more.)
Then there was the Thad Cochran-Chris McDaniel Senate GOP runoff in Mississippi. Rove acknowledges in his WSJ op-ed that Cochran turned to Democratic voters in an attempt to overcome McDaniel’s slight advantage in the original primary on 3 June. In Mississippi, an open-primary state, voters can cast cross-party votes, including voting cross-party in a runoff as long as they didn’t vote in the primary. Cochran and his supporters appealed to Democrats to put him over the top (and observers on both sides of the political spectrum agree that Democratic crossover voting was an important factor in Cochran’s narrow win; see here and here, for example).
But as with the Tenney-Hanna race in NY-22, the Mississippi runoff was characterized by a pull-out-all-the-stops approach to shutting down McDaniel, including cynical misrepresentations about what McDaniel and the “Tea Party” stand for, and blatantly cynical pandering to Democratic voters – not to court them to join the Republican side, which can be a legitimate party goal, but just as a tactical maneuver, to get them to help vote down one GOP candidate.
I heard Michael Medved on his radio program today telling a caller that that’s just “politics as usual,” and he doesn’t understand why conservatives claim to be disgusted by it. But that’s the thing. For millions of Americans who have lived outside of the big-city (and in some places, the state) political machines for most of their lives, that’s not politics as usual. That’s the kind of politics we associate with Barack Obama, and the other crony pols of both parties who have brought us the grotesquely overgrown government we want to roll back and reform.
It’s everything that’s wrong with Washington now: Republicans and Democrats making common cause with each other, benefiting from third-party political money to lie to and manipulate the voters, and all in service of beating back “upstart” initiatives from the people. Whatever may at one time have been the idealistic motives for instituting bigger and bigger government, the whole exercise now is little more than a corrupt, repulsive scramble to hold onto power and control over the people and our resources.
Do we on the limited-government right want to be insulated and protected from such “realities”? You bet we do. What kind of fool would argue that we shouldn’t want that? How skewed and wrong-headed is the perspective that says we should look at Thad Cochran’s approach to fending off Chris McDaniel, and accept that such a person, and his system of politics, should rule over us?
But limited-government advocates aren’t naive. In fact, quite the opposite. We understand fully that politics and government always tend to turn into what America’s have turned into. That’s why we want to limit the scope of government’s power over us. And we are 100% guaranteed to be correct in predicting that Thad Cochran will not lead the charge to do so – and indeed won’t even follow it.
The cost of allowing the cynical “politics as usual” model to pervade every aspect of our lives, through the encroachments of big government, is too high now. That’s what Karl Rove and Michael Medved don’t seem to understand. They make their livings speculating and talking about “politics as usual,” but the people who have to bear the entire cost of all its fall-out for the citizen are increasingly rebelling against it.
That’s because the cost is too high. Whatever their insight on other matters, Rove and Medved seem to have no feel for that reality.
We’re not all playing the same game
We are witnessing the last days of preeminence for politicians, political operatives, and pundits who don’t “get” this. They continue to speak in the terms of an old consensus, in which most of the disgruntled limited-government voters were willing to put up with the cost of going along with the GOP establishment’s priorities. That cost has always been high, but until the last half decade or so, the cost could be postponed to the future, through a combination of deficit spending and safety-valve politics: waivers, delays in implementation, tinkering with bad policies on the margins to relieve immediate crises.
The Obama presidency has brought the chickens home to roost, however. And I believe it’s the cheerleaders of the old consensus who are wrong about what the conservative “base” is prepared to do about it. The ugly truth revealed by the Mississippi runoff is that we’re not all on the same side. Fewer conservatives by the day can soberly, conscientiously agree that it is in their best interests to reelect the Thad Cochrans. Cochran didn’t seem like that bad a guy, six months ago. But under the pressure of challenge, he has shown his spots as a determined pillar of the status quo – and the status quo itself is what isn’t working now.
Karl Rove says in his op-ed that the voters want to know they’ve been heard. When it comes to limited-government activists, he’s wrong. Those voters want to change what their government is doing. Being heard isn’t enough. The cost of continuing down the path we’re on is unbearable, and it is no longer a viable option to play the old-consensus game, with the rules of which Rove is such a master.
Little by little, the limited-government movement is realizing that only a different “game” will bring a different result. And with all due respect to those who favor the old-consensus game of insisting on establishment Republicans, no matter who has to be bludgeoned to keep them on the ballot, none of us really knows what the future will hold as the conservative base divides over this.
Such a divide may mean that the GOP fails to retake the Senate in 2014. Given the state of the party today, that would not be the tragedy I might have considered it seven or eight years ago. There is a more important challenge, if America is to have a meaningful alternative to an irreversible defeat for ordered liberty. That challenge is to frame America’s enduring principles of liberty for politics again, and get more organization and more voters behind the limited-government movement.
Whatever lies ahead of us, there’s no mechanism of formal politics that can meet it effectively, if there is not a core population of Americans who believe in liberty and the rule of law, for which integrity and respect for the people are essential. The shabby antics of the GOP establishment in defending Cochran’s seat are proof that liberty and the rule of law are not now the priorities of the GOP establishment.
The game has changed. That doesn’t mean the only option is to push a third party. It does mean the task now is to find a way to organize around the principles of liberty and limited government – because the Republican Party’s priorities at the moment appear to lie elsewhere.