Will The Tea Party Save The GOP, Or Destroy It?
For the moment, the Tea Party movement is helping pull the GOP out of a slump that seemed like it would continue for a long time. Will it last, or will the movement end up doing for Republicans what the left has done for Democrats ?
Today at The New York Times, Nate Silver notes that the Republican success that the Tea Party movement seems set to help bring about this year comes with a danger for the GOP if they don’t live up to the (potentially unrealistic) expectations of the activists that make up the movement:
There is one fundamental Republican problem that the Tea Party has not resolved: the brand remains extremely unpopular among large segments of the public. In fact, the Tea Party is in some ways a reaction to this: particularly after Delaware, we should probably take the Tea Party at its word that stands in opposition to the Republican and Democratic establishments alike.
How loyal will voters who were inspired by the Tea Party remain to the Republican Party — and how loyal will Republicans remain to the Tea Party? The relationship is to some extent one of convenience. The Tea Party has candidates full of energy and chutzpah and some fresh-seeming ideas, but it lacks, on its own, the infrastructure to get these candidates elected. The Republican Party, meanwhile — while short on popular ideas and popular leaders — has access to money, voter lists, and experienced strategic hands. To some extent, the Tea Party is renting the Republicans’ electoral infrastructure.
But once some Tea Party candidates are in power, what need will they have for the skeleton of the Republican establishment? And how much will the Republican establishment, sensing this, default into self-preservation? Meanwhile, how effectively might the Tea Party differentiate itself from the establishment in the eyes of voters, once it becomes part of the establishment? If the Republican Party is not adroit at navigating these problems, then it is probably in for more punishment from voters — whether in 2012 or in the future.
Given that a large part of the motivation behind the Tea Party, if not its primary motivation, is opposition to Barack Obama, I would suspect that the Tea Party/GOP alliance (or partnership, or whatever you care to call it) will continue through the 2012 campaign. The movement itself is likely to split to some degree over which GOP candidate to support, but, assuming that they maintain their current level of activism and enthusiasm, the Tea Party crowd is likely to have a significant influence on the selection of the 2012 GOP nominee.
Now, if that nominee ends up being Sarah Palin, then all of the Tea Party’s dreams are likely to die on the rocks of Barack Obama’s Second Inaugural on January 20, 2013.
What happens, though, if the GOP runs the table between now and 2012, and ends up controlling both Houses of Congress and the Presidency ?
At that point, Silver suggests, the Republican Party will be on the hook. Either they deliver on the limited government message that will have swept them into office, or they suffer a wave of setbacks that sends them even further into irrelevance than they seemed to be after the 2008 elections. The Tea Party, then, would end up being a modern version of the 1964 Goldwater campaign.
Peter Worthington disagrees:
Today’s split among establishment Republicans and Tea Partiers is different. Key to Tea Partiers is hostility to the Obama policies – and the inept performance of Republicans to counter what is seen as Obama’s disastrous innovations.
Unlike the national mood in 1964, the Tea Party concerns today are reflected throughout the country. Moderate Democrats are uneasy about what Obama Democrats are doing – or not doing. Obama’s plunge in popularity was perhaps inevitable, but it also reveals disillusion. And opportunity.
Personally, I’m not so sure.
For one thing, the “Tea Party” represents, at most 1/3 of the national electorate according to most polls. While their influence inside the GOP is high, they are far from the largest interest group nationally, and one poll indicates that 50% of those polled have no opinion of the movement at all. Thanks to the enthusiasm gap that many have noted this year, the Tea Party GOPers are likely to have a big influence at the polls in November, but that’s not necessarily going to be the case in 2012.
For another, it’s fairly clear that much of the passion that the Tea Party generates is influenced by outside factors. In addition to the antipathy the movement has toward President Obama and his policies, the movement is benefiting from factors that have nothing to do with ideology. It’s long been a fact of American political life that the fortunes of the incumbent party live and die not on the particulars of an ideological battle, but on more concrete issues like the state of the economy. The main reason the GOP stands to gain this year has far more to do with economic uncertainty than it does with a fundamental ideological shift in the minds of a majority of American voters, and the biggest mistake the GOP can make if it wins big in November, or in 2012, is to assume that victory means endorsement of specific policy proposals.
Democrats are in trouble today because they believed that their victories in 2006 and 2008 constituted an endorsement of all of their big government dreams by the electorate when, in reality, they were simply a rejection of the perceived (and actual) failure of the Bush Administration. Thanks to the Tea Party, the GOP may end up making the exactly the same mistake.