Post-Mortem Analysis: In Defense Of The Tea Party

I’m seeing a great deal of growling from various quarters regarding the effect of the Tea Party on last night’s election results, and I think it’s worth exploring in greater detail the actual role the movement played in what happened at the ballot box.

The most prevalent takeaway I see from various quarters is that Sharron Angle, Joe Miller, Ken Buck and Christine O’Donnell were disasters and had more “reasonable” or better-vetted Republicans been nominated, the GOP might have taken control of the Senate. And because those four were darlings of the Tea Party movement, it then follows that the Tea Party cost the GOP Senate control. Therefore it’s a repudiation of the Tea Party for the four – and consequently the Republican Party – to have lost those elections.

ABC News is now asking if the Tea Party handed Senate control over to the Democrats, perhaps forgetting that the Democrats went into the election with 59 seats in that body.

The intolerable Greg Sargent at the Washington Post parrots the Democrat line in blaming GOP losses on gaffe-prone Tea Party candidates…

But in terms of raw numbers, the GOP’s failure to gain a 50-50 Senate really does appear to vindicate the argument by the establishment GOP and the NRSC that these candidates couldn’t win general elections — an argument that earned that establishment a tremendous amount of abuse from the right.

That said, last night’s results also clearly vindicate the Dem argument, too. The NRSC and establishment GOP proved unable to control the unpredictable, unpolished and extreme candidates the Tea Party foisted upon them — which is exactly what Democrats predicted would happen.

On friendlier ground, Aaron Marks, in what is otherwise a relatively balanced piece evaluating the Tea Party at The Next Right, has this to say…

It’s distinctly possible (and in at least one of the cases, fairly likely) that at least two of the Democratic Senate victories could have been Republican victories if not for relatively poor Tea Party candidates.  These candidates are, of course, Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware (I’ll come back to the latter shortly).

I actually expected Angle to squeak by, albeit very tightly.  The bottom line, however, is that Angle as a candidate left a lot to be desired – just Google “sharron angle gaffe” for a plethora of examples, but this one in particular comes to mind.  Her loss against a highly unpopular and vulnerable Harry Reid is an unambiguous testament to that fact.

Obviously, different results in the two races in Delaware and Nevada – even with the victor in Alaska caucusing with Republicans – would not alone have produced a majority (Republicans would then hold 49 seats in the Senate before CO and WA).  However, it seems hard to believe there won’t be a battle in the Senate sometime over the next two years in which those two additional Republican Senators would be helpful.  Not to mention the possibility that Independent Senators Lieberman and Nelson may have chosen to caucus with Republicans.

Much of this can be dismissed as the same kind of petty internecine sniping which always follows an electoral loss. Some of it can also be attributed to pundits looking for something to say. And part of it also arises from left-wingers seeking to exploit division within the conservative movement wherever they can. But what I’d like to discuss is the difference between thinking that is fundamentally based in tactical maneuvering and something much larger.

Because while the individual Tea Party organizations which have created such electoral energy and media attention over the past 20 months might melt away in the next 30 – something I think will happen because the majority of the talent and energy in the Tea Party movement is finding its way into the Republican Party at the grassroots level, where it will quickly percolate to the surface – the philosophical underpinnings of the movement have changed American politics, perhaps permanently.

You can use the Tea Party as a political identifier if you want. But if you’re talking about the Tea Party as a movement, what you’re really talking about is something called constitutional conservatism – because that’s the animating spirit behind the Tea Party, and as it happens it’s what’s animating the conservative movement as a whole and with it, the Republican Party.

Prior to the Tea Party’s appearance on the scene, conservatives and the GOP had largely been torn asunder during the Bush years. The old formulation of conservatism, which largely dates back to Ronald Reagan, involved (1) Judeo-Christian cultural values, though with Reagan those were largely taken as understood rather than worn on his sleeve, (2) a commitment to national security as a first priority, though while Reagan was highly aggressive in rebuilding American defenses and robust in our diplomatic and geopolitical identity he was extremely judicious in his deployment of military forces into action, and (3) a passionate call for smaller and less intrusive government, something Reagan never had the congressional resources to fully implement. Since Reagan’s time, Republicans have failed to deliver on at least one of the three legs at all times, and in the last years of the Bush 43 administration things had become muddled to such an extent that proponents of each of the three legs were fighting each other for supremacy.

But what the Tea Party has brought to the table, in general, is a philosophy which ties those legs together once again. A constitutional conservative approach encompasses all of the elements by going back to the Founders of the country and drawing lessons from them; namely, demanding a smaller, more fiscally sound and less intrusive federal government with more power devolved to the states and local governments – and as an end product, a maximum delivery of individual freedom.

Such an approach will resonate with cultural conservatives by asking that their battles be fought locally, which is a more proper and easier venue for social issues than the federal level. It resonates with economic conservatives who believe the path to economic revitalization goes through creating a more internationally-competitive tax policy and reducing the burden of the federal government on the private sector. And it resonates with the national security crowd which sees America’s debts and deficits as a threat to the future, not to mention the patriotic spirit constitutional conservatism infuses in its adherents touches national-security conservatives at a fundamental level.

But had it not been for the Tea Party movement actively promoting candidates and shaking up primary elections, it would have been far more difficult, if not impossible, for this fusion to have come to pass. It was a necessity for Lisa Murkowski, Mike Castle, Trey Grayson, Charlie Crist and Jane Norton to lose in the primaries. Those defeats by hand-picked Republicans were what brought the Tea Party into the GOP; had it not been for the constitutional conservatives winning those races and many others, it’s entirely possible that third-party challenges on the right might have destroyed this wave election before it ever built. After all, eight months ago that was the precise concern being bandied about in the media.

So while it’s perfectly understandable to castigate Christine O’Donnell or Sharron Angle for their imperfect candidacies, criticism of the Tea Party for having produced them as Republican nominees is misplaced. O’Donnell, Angle, Miller, Buck and some of the other candidates who went down to defeat last night were the beneficiaries of Tea Party support only because the alternatives simply didn’t present a significant difference from the Democrat waiting in the general election. Sure, Mike Castle might have beaten Chris Coons (though I don’t accept that assertion as fact). Sure, Sue Lowden might have beaten Harry Reid and his legion of unionized casino workers. But a roster of milquetoast candidates at the top of GOP tickets probably wouldn’t have turned out voters in red and purple – and even some blue – areas to carry massive Republican gains in House seats and state legislative races – and those are the real story of last night’s election.

An example is Carl Paladino. He was a quirky candidate for governor of New York, certainly. And without question he took a pounding from Andrew Cuomo as payment for his goofy campaign. But as the smoke clears in New York, the GOP nevertheless managed to grow its House delegation from two members to seven – and lost the infamous NY-23 district because Doug Hoffman, who had run on the Conservative ticket again, withdrew from the race and supported the Republican, still polled six percent and ended up being the difference in sending the amazingly lucky Bill Owens back to Washington. The GOP also made major gains in the state Senate, with a possibility of gaining control of that house depending on the final results of a few close races. While Paladino didn’t exactly carry the ticket, he did generate a little heat in the Empire State for what was essentially an unwinnable race. Does anyone believe Rick Lazio as the Republican candidate, hopeless as he was understood to be by everyone, would have produced such gains down ticket?

Another example is Ron Johnson, who unlike Paladino, O’Donnell or Angle actually won his race. Johnson is a fantastic constitutional conservative and a Tea Party favorite; he spearheaded a conservative wipeout of Democrats across Wisconsin – the birthplace of the Progressive movement. Wisconsin has a new governor in Scott Walker, a Republican. It has two new Republican House members in Sean Duffy and Reid Ribble. And it now has Republicans in charge of both its Senate and its House of Representatives. This is a blue state which is now in the full control of the Republican Party. Bear in mind that the GOP establishment had largely written Russ Feingold’s Senate seat off when Tommy Thompson, the old-faithful candidate of choice, couldn’t be recruited to run; while Thompson is an able and honest public servant, does anyone really think this kind of rout could have come about with the same-old, same-old being presented to voters there?

Buck in Colorado is also held up as a Tea Party failure. His campaign had something of a rocky road because he at times came off as unpolished, but it’s unfair to brand him a debacle as the GOP nominee instead of Jane Norton. The fact is, the Colorado Republican Party imploded from the top down; it failed to recruit a viable gubernatorial candidate at the top of its ticket and put forth the worst nominee of any major party in the country in Dan Maes. Things were so bad that former congressman Tom Tancredo got in the race as a third party candidate two months from Election Day just to give conservatives a semi-viable option. In the face of that disaster it would have been an incredibly heavy lift, in retrospect, for Buck to have beaten a Democrat who had more than $20 million spent in his campaign or on its behalf. But even in the midst of that disaster, the GOP still managed to pick up two House seats. Cory Gardner knocked off Betsy Markey and Scott Tipton beat John Salazar, brother of the Senator whose seat Buck was trying to take. And oh, by the way – Republicans took over the Colorado House of Representatives. Could that progress have been made under such abysmal circumstances with a same-old, same-old hand-picked Establishment candidate in Jane Norton?

If what we’re going to complain about is that Christine O’Donnell had to run ads debunking the idea she’s a witch, or that Joe Miller’s security company detained a left-wing blogger who accosted him in the men’s room, then let’s be fair – establishment GOP candidates didn’t have a perfect record, either. Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman both came from RINO-ish backgrounds, and they both got killed in California. Fiorina ran a commendable campaign, but is it really unreasonable to think she did any better than Chuck DeVore would have? And John Raese was a same-old, same-old GOP candidate who first ran for the Senate in West Virginia all the way back in 1984; despite an obvious preference for a Republican to replace Robert Byrd expressed in poll after poll by the voters there ,Raese was trounced by Joe Manchin.

The only “safe” GOP candidates who proved themselves winners were Mark Kirk, Kelly Ayotte and Dan Coats – and the latter two were in races almost anyone on the Republican ticket would have likely won.

It’s also worth remembering that the Tea Party is a brand-new organism. It’s just 20 months old. Is it really reasonable to expect the Tea Party to stand up candidates to compete in U.S. Senate races in its first election cycle? Or is it more reasonable to expect a movement such as this one to start locally and produce results in smaller races initially? If you apply that standard to the movement in analyzing its effect, you realize that Marco Rubio, Ron Johnson, Mike Lee, Rand Paul and Pat Toomey (who didn’t run as an explicitly Tea Party-oriented candidate but whose Club For Growth background and platform is perfectly in line with the movement’s philosophy) is one heck of a ride for a first rodeo. Rubio, Lee and Paul didn’t produce new Republican seats by winning, but what they did was to move the Senate GOP Caucus to the right and improve the party’s brand in the eyes of those who dismiss Republicans and Democrats as the same. That’s hardly insignificant; when you can make a switch from a Gerald Ford to a Ronald Reagan it’s a big improvement.

Let’s also not forget that some of these “Tea Party” candidates weren’t insurance salesmen or housewives who all of a sudden decided to run for the U.S. Senate because they went to a Glenn Beck rally. Angle had been a state legislator long before there was a Tea Party. O’Donnell was the GOP nominee for the Senate in Delaware in 2008. Buck was a district attorney. The real Tea Party candidates, the ones whose political involvement didn’t start until after Rick Santelli’s rant on the floor of the Chicago Exchange, just got elected to the state senate this year, and we won’t see them in the limelight of statewide races until 2012 or 2014.

So if we’re going to be fair about the effect constitutional conservatism and the Tea Party movement had on the 2010 elections, let’s recognize that effect extended beyond a few Senate races. Let’s not forget some of the races Tea Party candidates ran and lost weren’t quite as comparatively easy as they were made out to be. And let’s apply a reasonable standard to the movement before we declare it a liability when not everything goes our way in a national election cycle.

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