The Republicans' Tea Party Problem

The Republicans are in danger of adopting a perpetual primary mentality.

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The Republican reaction to Elena Kagan's Supreme Court nomination was striking not for what it said about Kagan, but for how it illustrated whom the party is talking to these days. The GOP lines of attack included a curious denunciation of her having approvingly quoted Justice Thurgood Marshall to the effect that the Constitution as originally drafted was "defective."

Presumably Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele doesn't need to be told that a document that approved of slavery and counted slaves as three-fifths persons was defective. Nor would the framers have taken offense since they included a mechanism for amending the Constitution and immediately used it to add on the Bill of Rights.

But the GOP defense of the Constitution was not about rational, mainstream argument. It was aimed squarely at the hyperpatriotic, kitchen table constitutional scholars who currently reside in the activated portion of the GOP base. This is the Tea Party movement and, more broadly, the conservative outrage coalition that yearns to "take back" our country in a way that often has a distinctly antebellum view of states' rights.

Parties and politicians must cater to their base voters. But the urgency with which the GOP is doing it makes it look like a party with a perpetual primary-race mentality. The establishment, haunted by the specter of a Tea Party-driven urge to purge, seems to continually need to demonstrate its worthiness. But even primary candidates eventually have to tack back to the center to win general elections. The problem for Republicans is that Tea Party petulance and ideological certitude could keep the party on the fringe.

Take an issue as apparently GOP-friendly as healthcare reform. Since President Obama signed the bill in March, its poll numbers have narrowed but it remains unpopular. Pollster.com's average of polls shows a bit less than 44 percent favoring healthcare reform and a little more than 49 percent opposing it. It should be a political winner for the GOP. But Republicans seem intent on overplaying their hand, campaigning not merely against the law but affirmatively pledging its repeal. Such a promise may exhilarate the base, but could prove tone-deaf for voters who like individual elements of the plan, such as parents being able to keep children under age 26 on their healthcare plans. That's why Democrats have launched a campaign to highlight the GOP's repeal fervor. "Are Republicans really willing to deny our young people their healthcare coverage just to score a few cheap political points?" Rep. George Miller, the California Democrat who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, asked last month. [See who supports Miller.]

The law doesn't even have to achieve net popularity to pose a danger to Republicans. If it simply becomes neutral, voters who were frustrated by Democrats' never-ending efforts to pass the bill, rather than focus on jobs, will wonder at the GOP's obsession with overturning it.

Then there are those jobs. Republicans seized on the slight uptick in last month's unemployment rate, from 9.7 percent to 9.9 percent. But House GOP Leader John Boehner's asking, "Where are the jobs?" looked blunderingly partisan because the economy created 290,000 new jobs, making April the strongest month in four years. If the trend continues, GOP chants of "socialism," while necessary to keep base conservatives happy, could make the party seem stridently out of touch.

Or consider immigration, another issue on which Democrats seem poised to cooperate with good fortune. Pivoting off of the controversial Arizona law, Democrats will soon start debating an immigration bill in Congress. A tougher-than-thou immigration stance is de rigueur, for the Republican base. And, in fairness, it could have short-term traction with economically insecure voters.

But Hispanics are not only the largest but also the fastest-growing minority group in the country. They will make up 25 percent of the U.S. population in 2050. And while they are often culturally conservative, they tend to feel targeted and alienated by tough immigration rhetoric. As recently as 2004, the GOP had room to position itself to appeal to these voters, and George W. Bush won more than 40 percent in that group. But immigration politics have reversed Bush's progress. A poll commissioned by the New Democrat Network, released last month, gave Democrats a 59 percent to 23 percent advantage in this critical demographic group.