GOP's Tea Party Problems Come From Being Too Centrist

Republicans need to show that this time they mean it when they talk about limited government.

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Months after Barack Obama was elected president, a plethora of books, purporting the death of the Republican Party, began appearing in bookstores across the land. For the third time in a half century, the chattering class proclaimed the Grand Old Party dead. (Goldwater’s landslide defeat in 1964 and Watergate, a decade later, prompted those earlier predictions.) As Obama frittered away his political capital during his first year, obsessing over healthcare, cap-and-trade, and financial reform when the public wanted action on the economy, the GOP appeared resurgent. And most of those books headed for the remainder table.

[Read more about the GOP.]

As the latest round of conventional wisdom pouring out of Washington has it, the price of these books is about to rise again. I would hold on to my money.

The authors of those books, like the commentators who praised them, held that the Republicans had veered too far to the right to win elections. That, of course, presumed that the electorate is essentially “centrist,” when we have known for some time that it is “center-right.” Yesterday’s turnout in Republican primaries--to say nothing about Obama’s sagging poll numbers--suggests that if the national GOP is indeed in trouble, it is because it has ignored the feelings of its base, not because it has listened to it.

Its leaders have too many times given lip service to party principles, only to retreat to back rooms to cut secret deals, and not always secret, with big-name lobbyists, who pour boodles of cash into coffers of candidates running in areas far away from where those lobbyists and many of their clients live. Was this not the story behind the bank bailouts, TARP, and the other factors and the other happenings in Washington that gave rise to the Tea Party movement in the first place? To no avail, I have been waiting for months for someone to ask incumbents who recently succumbed to upstart challengers which of the Bush or DeLay initiatives they voted for would they oppose today. Voters have a way of figuring out when those who seek their votes are being, shall we say, less than honest.

There is, of course, a difference between being ignorant and stupid. Those who do not bundle oodles of cash for D.C.-backed candidates need not know the intricacies that lay behind every bill and regulation to know that Democrats could not and did not by themselves lean on banks to provide mortgages to those who could not afford them. Nor did the Democrats initiate two wars they could neither explain and refused to pay for. This base has suspected for some time that much of the party's power structure that pretends to enact policy in their name in Washington thinks that voters are dumb and that candidates they support will prove as insincere as those they sent to Washington in yesteryear. Trent Lott, the former Republican Senate leader, let the cat out of the bag. “As soon as Tea Party candidates arrive, we need to co-opt them,” said the man best known for pining for a return of Strom Thurmond’s “Dixiecrat” campaign for president in 1948. Imagine what life might be like not only for him, but for all who profit from using their influence with former colleagues, were there five or six new Republican senators elected who refused to take their telephone calls or put a hold on earmarks they sought to have their buddies insert into the budget or on regulators their clients wanted to see confirmed. Elect enough of them and recession may finally hit the D.C. power structure. Andrew Jackson and the "Great Unwashed" he brought to town with him would be proud.

It appears that the GOP establishment, which spent the country almost into oblivion and lost both Houses of Congress and the presidency to the Democrats has yet to learn its lesson. In Alaska, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, shown the door by Republicans fed up with Ted Stevens-styled “bringing home the bacon at the expense of the 49 other states,” openly flirts with running as a write-in candidate. No gracious loser she is. (If she proceeds, count on Lott and his ilk to contribute to that effort and handsomely.)

[See who supports Murkowski.]

In Delaware, it is anyone’s guess whether Rep. Mike Castle will endorse Christine O’Donnell. So much for being a "good sport." After publicly agonizing about having to “go negative” in the last few days of the race, the purportedly "beloved," milquetoasty Castle protested that he "had no choice.” (Someone obviously put a gun to his head.) Actually, Castle had several choices. One option would have been to have opposed Obama's cap-and-trade bill, rather than joining six other Republicans helping it pass, as some "Blue Dog" took a walk. Another might have been to try to persuade his constituents why he believed that cap-and-trade was both right for the country and good for the people of Delaware. Instead he chose to blast his opponent for not holding a steady job when the unemployment rate is nearly 10 percent. That hardly makes for smart politics. It may have produced Washington's latest overpriced lobbyist.

[See who donated the most to Castle's campaign.]

As if it has not done enough to enrage the party’s base by seeking to protect party incumbents (and other preferred Washington choices) from primary challenges, the National Republican Senatorial Committee leaked word within minutes after Castle’s defeat that it would not be putting resources into Delaware during the general election. Before the general election campaign even begins? The decision appeared more rooted in spite than in political considerations. These, after all, were the geniuses who backed Florida Gov. Charlie Crist before he opted to run as an Independent; Sen. Arlen Specter before he became a Democrat; Kentucky’s Trey Grayson, in spite of his failure to explain why he wanted to be a senator; Murkowski; and a Nevada candidate who proposed paying doctor bills with chickens and groceries. What does one have to do to get fired over there? [See who donated the most to Specter's campaign.]

Pundits may deride candidates who won their nominations fairly, squarely, and without Trent Lott as wackos. But for Republicans to win control of Congress, they will need to persuade their supporters that this time they mean it when they talk about limited government, lower taxes, and a strong America. Not a bad platform that. Rather than wait for leaders in Washington to tell them what they will be running on, a new breed of candidates has taken control of their campaigns. That is the kind of change some of us really can believe in. And having bested their more established Republican opponents, the Tea Party choices, after pulling scores of new voters to the polls in a manner reminiscent of Obama in 2008, will now have to direct their ire against establishment Democrats. Suddenly, the 2010 elections have become very interesting. They might even spawn a new round of books.

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