Conservatives are between a rock and a hard place. The Tea Party is in and the GOP is out. Tea Party is a brand that is popular with conservative voters but doesn’t have a national financial base. The Republican Party has a national finance infrastructure but it has been obliterated ideologically by the Tea Party. The emergence of the Tea Party keeps Karl Rove and other D.C. Republicans awake at night. But I’m not losing any sleep because of Karl Rove’s nightmares.
It wouldn’t be the first time in American history that an upstart has killed a party. In the 1840s and 1850s the Whigs gave way to the Republican Party. The old party wouldn’t or couldn’t take a strong antislavery position while Republicans did. The Republicans blossomed as the party of a strong national government while Democrats remained in the GOP’s dust as the party of rebellion and states’ rights. Timing is everything in politics and Democrats continued to fight for state power, right after a war that established the dominance of national power over states’ rights. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Tea Party.]
Or the opposite may happen. Populism gained favor in the 1890s because of its strong stance against corporate and government corruption but Democrats saved themselves and absorbed the populists by dropping its corporate coziness and becoming a peoples’ party.
And even though the great populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan lost the presidential elections in 1896, 1900 and 1908, the Great Commoner transformed a states’ rights party into a national force that produced the platform for presidential victories by Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and 1916 and by FDR in 1932, 1936, 1940, 1944, and by Harry Truman in 1948.
In the 2010 primary elections, the Tea Party prevailed in just about every race against an establishment Republican congressional candidate. The GOP’s tendency to eat its own young prevented them from winning the Senate in 2010 and may stop win from winning the presidency and the U.S. Senate in 2012.
My guess is the Democratic leader of the Senate offers a daily prayer to the Tea Party. If the Republicans had not nominated Sharron Angle, a Tea Party favorite to oppose him, he would not be a U.S. senator. If the Tea Party hadn’t nominated extremists in Senate campaigns, he wouldn’t be the majority leader if he had been re-elected. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the GOP 2012 primary candidates.]
Last year, the GOP nominated Tea Party extremists and consequently lost Senate races in in three states where the party should have won. The candidates were Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Angle in Nevada and Ken Buck in Colorado. In this cycle, the Tea party is going after moderately conservative GOP senators, Dick Lugar of Indiana and Olympia Snowe in Maine. The Tea Party might very well win both primaries and hand over solid Republican seats to new Democratic senators and allow them to take the Senate back from Republicans.
But I’m not losing any sleep over that either.
Corrected 6/2/11: A previous version of this blog misidentified Harry Reid's 2010 opponent and the years in which Woodrow Wilson was elected president.