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Michael Gerson: The tea party hangover

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By Michael Gerson
February 28, 2014

WASHINGTON—The evidence accumulates that the Republican Party is sobering up—cotton-mouthed and slightly disoriented—from its recent ideological bender.

The tone of some rhetoric on the far right—no mercy to enemies, no enemies to the right—was pressed to an abhorrent extreme by Ted Nugent, who called President Obama a “subhuman mongrel.” And almost all of the right (save Sarah Palin, who finally lost her long, sad struggle with ideological delirium) recoiled at such viciousness and bigotry.

No political movement can persuade a great democracy without displaying measure of democratic grace. And any ideological movement that claims to be inspired by faith and morality is discredited by language that dehumanizes its opponents.

This sobering up also proceeds on matters of political strategy. The serious prospect that the GOP might gain control of the Senate has highlighted the fact that many tea party leaders and groups view this goal as irrelevant. Their objective is not to elect the acceptable; it is to weed out the heretical. So Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas—having previously pledged not to fundraise for a similar group—raises money for the Madison Project, which seeks to defeat Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in his upcoming primary. Cruz's representative claims it reflects “a previous fundraising agreement.” It looks more like strategic incoherence and political duplicity. Thomas Sowell, not a conservative violet known for shrinking, notes “disquieting signs” that Ted Cruz is “looking out for Ted Cruz—even if that sets back the causes he claims to be serving.”

Cruz has made one completely unintended contribution to the fortunes of his party. It is likely that Republicans will look back on the 16-day government shutdown he forced last October as a liberating loss. The tea party coalition that rose to prominence in the 2010 election got precisely what it wanted and demanded. It promised wonderful things to follow. The outcome? Republicans of every ideological stripe have run in horror from every subsequent budget confrontation. The shutdown was either a random yelp of protest or a fundraising stunt for tea party groups. But it could claim no credible, positive relationship to the electoral prospects of the GOP.

Political movements that regard winning as a distraction tend not to win, and eventually alienate the political parties they inhabit. Following the shutdown, Republicans leaders immediately seemed less intimidated by the purity caucus. (“They've lost all credibility,” said House Speaker John Boehner of tea party groups.) The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a number of Republican donors resolved to aid electable Republicans in primaries. Tea party challenges have fizzled in Kentucky and Texas. They are fading in Kansas, Tennessee and South Carolina. And even in Mississippi—where Sen. Thad Cochran is a vulnerable incumbent—the tea party insurgent struggles to explain his recent skeptical reaction when asked about Katrina relief funding. There are few libertarians after hurricanes.  

Tea party leaders are now trying to downplay political expectations—which isn't an easy adjustment for a revolution. Yet it would be easy for the GOP to draw the wrong lessons from these developments. This is not the triumph of corporate or country club Republicanism. A plurality of Republicans in primaries still identify with the tea party movement. The populist reaction against President Obama's governing vision of regulation, centralization and mandates is a source of GOP strength, and one reason Senate control may be within GOP reach.

There is no “establishment” plotting a Cavalier restoration in the drawing rooms of the capital. Republicans are sorting through what kind of populists they hope to be. Do they want to be identified with the tactics of Ted Cruz? Or do they want to give the populist backlash Obama has provoked a positive governing purpose on issues from health care to education to economic mobility? 

Post-Obamacare liberalism is in a state of disrepair, having alienated growing numbers of political independents. But on the national level, the GOP needs to appeal to many Americans who haven't voted Republican in a while and who find the party itself a bit scary. While the 2016 Republican field remains shapeless, it is increasingly obvious what kind of nominee is needed. He or she will need to capture the populist impulse, without being discredited by its excesses.  

Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com



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