Time For A GOP/Tea Party Divorce? No, Time To Re-Open The ‘Big Tent’
David Frum argues in favor of the idea that the Tea Party and the GOP ought to part ways:
Right now, tea party extremism contaminates the whole Republican brand. It’s a very interesting question whether a tea party bolt from the GOP might not just liberate the party to slide back to the political center — and liberate Republicans from identification with the Sarah Palins and the Ted Cruzes who have done so much harm to their hopes over the past three election cycles.
It’s worth repeating over and over again. Add Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana, Sharron Angle in Nevada and Ken Buck in Colorado, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Joe Miller in Alaska — and you have half a dozen Senate races lost to the GOP by extremist nominations.
Maybe the right answer to the threat, “Shut down the government or we quit” is: “So sad you feel that way. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”
Now, it’s worth noting that Frum has never been much of a fan of the Tea Party, or the hard core conservative branch of the Republican Party in general, and that the feeling has been largely mutual on their part. He’s written many pieces critical of both groups over the years, many of which have been quite honestly spot-on. On the others side, Frum is seen by that branch of conservatism as part of the “Establishment GOP” more interested in currying favor with the media and Democrats than in advancing conservatism. So, it’s not surprising to see Frum write yet another negative column about the Tea Party. What is somewhat surprising, though, is his seeming assertion that the creation of Third Party, meaning an actual split between the Tea Party and the GOP would be a good idea, especially since it seems from his essay that he wants the Tea Party-less GOP to be successful.
As his model of success, Frum points to the splits that occurred within the Democratic Party in the late 1940s, when the party saw itself to split off to the right with the Dixiecrats and to the left with Henry Wallace, who split with the Democrats in 1948 to form something called the “American Labor Party.” Between the two of them, Thurmond and Wallace got nearly 5% of the vote in the 1948 Presidential Election, although only Thurmond managed to win any states, all of them being southern states that would have gone to Truman otherwise. Despite what seemed like it would be a fatal split in his party, Truman managed to beat Thomas Dewey by nearly 5% of the vote and nearly 120 Electoral Votes. After the 1948 election, both the Dixiecrat and “American Labor” movements had largely faded away as political forces and the Democratic coalition that had existed since FDR was elected was a strong as ever.
From this Frum draws the conclusion that, well I’m not honestly clear on what conclusion he draws and what applicability it has to the situation the GOP faces with the Tea Party. For one thing, to the extent there was a “split” between the Democrats in the center and the two extremes that Thurmond and Wallace represented, it was largely healed after the `48 election and strengthened in the years to come with victories by Kennedy and Johnson, not to mention Democratic dominance of Congress beginning in the late 1950s that more or less lasted until the Republicans were swept into power by the 1994 elections. Yes, it’s true that eventually the Democrats lost much of the Southern voting cohort, and Thurmond himself, to the Republican Party, but that loss was more than made up for by the increased political participation of African-Americans made possible by the Civil Rights Movement and the Voting Rights Act. On the left, the labor movement has only occasionally strayed from the Democratic fold since Wallace’s campaign, most notably in 1980 and 1984 when several prominent unions endorsed Ronald Reagan. So, to the extent there was a “split” in the Democratic Party in 1948, it was a very short lived one that didn’t really harm (or help) the long term interests of the party.
What exactly this tells us about the Tea Party and the GOP I really can’t say, nor can I understand how it supports the idea that Republicans should look forward to a day when that part of their coalition that identifies with that movement left the party in significant numbers. Indeed, as Nate Cohn notes at The New Republic, it’s rather obvious that neither the GOP nor the Tea Party would last very long without each other:
If Republicans think they have a pathway to victory without the tea party, they’re sorely mistaken. The tea party is not some small, fringe element of the Republican coalition. It’s not the Buchanan 2000 vote, or something. The tea party is the Republican Party, at least as much as any single constituency can claim, with the possible and overlapping exception of Evangelicals.
According to a July Pew Research survey,Tea Party Republicans make up nearly half (49 percent) of the Republican primary electorate and fully 37 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaners. So long as Democrats remain modestly unified, it is not conceivable that Republicans could compensate for the loss of anything near 37 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaners with gains among moderates and independents. Once a Republican realized there aren’t enough opportunities to win without the tea party, the centrist fantasy would come to an end. Republicans would immediately tack back to their right, in an effort to consolidate the Republican coalition.
Mass defection of “Tea Party” supporters to some hypothetical third party would accomplish nothing other than to make many currently sold red states much more competitive for Democrats. On a national level, as Daniel Larison notes, Republicans already have enough trouble winning elections, stripping away such a large part of their coalition would simply guarantee that they’d continue losing on the national level, and that Tea Party supporters would find themselves putting up candidates that would likely do little more than play the role of spoiler in states that Republican Presidential candidates should be winning easily. As much as that would hurt the GOP, it would also hurt the Tea Party movement since it’s hard to see how they could possibly achieve their political goals as little more than a rump political party. Just ask the people in the Libertarian Party about that.
What’s odd about Frum’s argument is that it seems to go against positions he’s taken in the past, specifically the idea that the key to Republican success is to expand its appeal, not to contract its coalition. Indeed, in some sense, Frum sounds in his piece not unlike the Tea Party does. One of the problems that the Tea Party has created for Republicans is that it has generally fought against the idea that the GOP needs to appeal to the broadest possible audience if its going to win elections, and that it makes no sense to criticize, say, a Northeastern Republicans like Scott Brown or Chris Christie because they aren’t as conservative as the Ted Cruz’s of the world. In a country as large as the United States, and accepting as a given for the moment the type of political and electoral system we have today, a political party can only succeed if it appeals to broad coalitions rather than narrow ideological niches. That is one of the fundamental mistakes the Tea Party makes, and the reason why the GOP would be doomed to minority status if it follow their prescription for the future. Someone like Frum, though, ought to recognize the need for broad coalitions, and yet his solution to the GOP’s problems is to restrict the GOP’s appeal, even to cut off a figurative limb, not to expand its appeal. In other words, Frum seems to have lost sight of Lee Atwater’s “big tent” approach.
I agree with Frum that the GOP faces a bleak future if it keeps tying itself so closely and slavishly to the Tea Party, but the answer to that isn’t to narrow the coalition, but to expand it. For this to succeed, though, Republicans who aren’t part of the Tea Party, and conservatives who recognize the difference between political success and ideological purity, are going to have to take their party back. It can’t be the home of people like Ted Cruz and Tim Heulskamp who characterize anyone who disagrees with them, whether it be on strategy or policy, as being members of a “surrender caucus,” but it also shouldn’t be a party that rejects their supporters out of hand. There should be room for people who are pro-life and people who are pro-choice, for supporters of “traditional marriage” and supporters of marriage equality. And, it should be more open to people who doubt the advisability of what has become, in the wake of the Bush Administration, the standard GOP line on issues like preemptive war and national defense. It should be more open to immigration reform, including the recognition of the fact that the millions of people here without proper documentation are not going to be going home and that increased legal immigration is in the long term national interests of the United States. It should, in other words, become more libertarian, but not in the manner that the Tea Party has turned libertarian ideas into a purity test used to exclude people rather than welcome them into the kind of coalition that could actually win elections.
Many people, myself included, no longer wish to be associated with the Republican Party, both because of the excesses of the Bush Administration and the dogmatic, no compromises extremism of the Tea Party. At the same time, we’re not Democrats because, well, we disagree fundamentally with many aspects of that party’s positions on domestic and fiscal policies. If the GOP were to being to actually change in the manner outlined above, then those people might start coming back. If, instead, the GOP starts closing itself off in the ways that either Frum or the Tea Party crowd want, then it will continue to become more and more irrelevant.