Feature

The Meaning of It All

Our panel of experts reports on the first national elections of the Tea Party era. 

By From the December 2010 - January 2011 issue

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W. James Antle III

Heading into the midterm elections, the country faced a dilemma: although there was little evidence the Republicans were ready to be trusted with power, it was clear that the Democrats needed to be stopped. The voters had no other alternative but to give the GOP control of the House, a majority of the nation's governorships, and substantial gains in the Senate.

The primary process did improve the Republican ranks. Thanks in large part to the Tea Party, many principled conservatives emerged victorious against time-serving establishment hacks. Senators Rand Paul, Pat Toomey, and Marco Rubio are just three examples of the dividends this hard work paid in the November election. But for many Republicans, this triumph remains an undeserved gift from Obama-weary voters.

So what is next? There are two lessons to be learned from the recently defeated Democrats. First, give credit where it's due: the Obama-Pelosi-Reid Democrats used their power to advance their principles. Their principles may not be admirable, but their willingness to stick to them in the face of immense political risk surely was.

When was the last time you saw Republicans taking similar risks on domestic policy? What did they have to show for their 55-45 Senate majority after the 2004 elections? Power is a temporary thing that must be used wisely. The last Republican Congress did little for the country and ultimately failed to salvage the majority.

Second, it is by now clear that the Democrats never understood the disconnect between the two distinct groups of voters that put them in power: their enthusiastic liberal base, which wanted to move the country to the left, and the independents, who simply wanted to fire the Republicans. Though obvious in hindsight, this was an easy mistake to make. The independents seemed to agree with the Democratic base that the Iraq war was a mistake, that the economy was in shambles, and that health care needed to be reformed.

Republicans have been returned to power by two distinct groups of voters: their enthusiastic conservative base, which wants to move the country to the right, and the independents, who wanted to fire the Democrats. The independents agree with the Republican base that the health care bill was a mistake, that the economy remains in shambles, and that the federal government cannot continue to spend money it does not have.

So that is the new dilemma: how do the Republicans address these problems without finding themselves in the same position as the Democrats? The country does need entitlement reform, a genuine free market in health care, and a return to limited government. But it will not be easy for the Republicans to deliver these things, even if Obama would let them, without shattering the electoral coalition that makes their new power possible.

How successful Republicans can be at squaring this circle will determine whether this was a meaningful victory or just another wasted opportunity. 

W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.

Fred Barnes

Politics isn't science. We learn this again with every election. At least I do. Polls and numbers on campaign spending only take us so far. A lot of unexpected things occur. For years, Republicans made a major effort to defeat Democratic Rep. Melissa Bean of Illinois, recruiting good candidates, spending money, and all the rest. This year they gave up. And what happened? Joe Walsh, who identified himself with the Tea Party movement and got little help from the Republican Party, was wildly outspent. He won. Chip Cravaack, a former Northwest Airlines pilot, was ignored outside Minnesota in his campaign against Democrat Jim Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation Committee. No chance of winning, right? He whipped Oberstar in their single debate and won the election. Surprised me. And there was Renee Ellmers, a nurse who defeated Democratic Rep. Bob Etheridge of North Carolina. Totally unexpected.

I was struck by two other things in the midterm election. One was the amazingly high quality of Republican House candidates. They were superior to the party's Senate candidates, with a few exceptions (Rob Portman, Carly Fiorina, Ron Johnson). Allen West, a retired Army officer, ousted Democratic Rep. Ron Klein in Florida. He was a terrific candidate. He and Tim Scott of South Carolina will expand the number of African American Republicans in the House from zero to two. During the campaign, I met Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, who ran for the House against Democratic incumbent Deborah Halverson. He, at age 32, was an enormously poised candidate and won going away. Another surprisingly impressive Republican was Jon Runyan, the former offensive tackle for the Philadelphia Eagles. He knocked off Democratic Rep. John Adler of New Jersey. At 6-foot-7 and 330, Runyan will add heft to the House Republican caucus.

The other was the wipeout of Democrats in the South. The Republican takeover has taken decades, but now it's near completion. Republicans won new House seats everywhere: Virginia (3), North Carolina (1), South Carolina (1), Georgia (1), Florida (4), Alabama (1), Tennessee (3), Mississippi (2), Louisiana (1), Arkansas (2). And that's in addition to winning seven Senate races and losing none, plus five governorships, all in the South. Tennessee now becomes one of the most Republican states in the nation. Alabama has a Republican legislature (both houses) for the first time since Reconstruction. The gains in the South are unlikely to be undone in the foreseeable future. Was a sweep of this magnitude expected? Not by me.

The election also produced one instant star in Washington -- Marco Rubio, the new senator from Florida. Jeb Bush said that when he hears Rubio speak, it brings tears to his eyes. I wouldn't go that far. Okay, maybe my eyes did dampen a bit when I listened to Rubio's stump speech. 

Fred Barnes is executive editor of the Weekly Standard.

Michael Barone

I have been writing, in the pages of the Washington Examiner and elsewhere, for what seems like a tediously long time, that the Obama administration and the congressional Democratic leadership have been operating on the assumption that economic distress will make Americans more supportive of or at least amenable to big government programs. The voters on November 2 made clear what I have long argued, not least in the pages of Our Country: The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan (1990: available on amazon.com for $3.50), that this assumption is wrong. Point made.

So in the spirit of The American Spectator let me focus on an issue which is seemingly peripheral but which I think tells us much about how the Obama Democrats have got America -- seemingly a foreign country to many of them -- dead wrong. That issue is high-speed rail.

The Obama Democrats love high-speed rail. They want to spend billions to place ribbons of high-speed rail lines across as many of the 3,141 counties in the United States as they can. They point out, correctly, that high-speed rail lines if not economically profitable nonetheless provide an arguably useful service in countries like France and Spain and Germany. In connecting major metro areas 300 or even 500 miles apart, high-speed rail lines provide a useful alternative to airlines for business travelers.

I have a certain sympathy, since I share the Obama Democrats' nanny state impulse to channel all travelers into narrow routes of my own design. When I was a boy, my mother would supply me with shirt cardboards on which I would draw outlines of rivers and lakes and then fill in the land with streets and avenues. Telling everybody exactly where they could and could not travel came naturally to me, and still does. If it made sense to lace the United States with a network of Paris-Lyon TGVs or Tokyo-Osaka bullet trains, I would line up to design the routes myself.

But of course it doesn't make sense. Other continent-sized nations have planned high-speed rail only on the very few circa-300-to-500-mile routes where it might make sense: Toronto-Montreal, Moscow-St. Petersburg, Sydney-Melbourne. Sort of like our (uneconomical, far from optimally fast) Acela lines from New York to Washington or Boston.

In this campaign we have seen Republican governor-elect Scott Walker attack the proposed Milwaukee-Madison high-speed rail line Wisconsin Democrats are determined to build. The two cities are 78 miles apart. They are connected by an interstate highway that is seldom crowded. Milwaukee is a typically American spread-out metro area in which for most people it would be a lot more trouble to drive into a rail station than it would be to drive out I-94 to Madison if you had need to go there.

Scott Walker ridiculed the high-speed rail line and promised to kill it. He was elected by a solid margin over Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, a nice man who backed this boondoggle. Voters in Wisconsin, a state carried comfortably by Barack Obama in 2008, are not about to be nanny-stated into an hour-long train ride from a station far from their homes to avoid an hour-and-10-minutes-long drive to their destination.

The Obama Democrats don't understand why backward Americans resist their high-minded schemes, just as I could not understand at age eight why people would not want to live in the street grids I designed on my mother's shirt cardboards. The difference is I grew up. 

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Chris Chocola

Two thousand ten was not nearly as important an election as we think it is -- at least, not yet.

Don't get me wrong. Winning the House of Representatives, rebuking the ideological overreach of President Obama and the Democrats, and putting a good scare into the establishments of both parties is a good thing. But conservatives won't know how significant the 2010 election truly was until November 7, 2012, the day after President Obama has been either reelected or replaced.

The policies our nation desperately needs to reinvigorate our economy and reform our government are difficult to imagine under President Obama. He fundamentally supports a European-style social democracy model of economics and society. He believes government spending creates jobs, trusts the wisdom of bureaucrats over the wisdom of markets, and possesses equal parts ignorance of and contempt for the free enterprise system.

Therefore, the most important outcome of the 2010 elections is the opportunity for House Republicans and a growing pro-growth, principled Republican bloc in the Senate to frame the 2012 debate in the clearest possible terms. The American people will always choose freedom and opportunity over tax-spend-and-debt big-government liberalism, but only if they are given that choice to begin with. Before a true conservative mandate must come true conservative leadership.

The task ahead for conservatives, then, is to insist the new House of Representatives and larger Republican Senate conference do their job: to frame the debate clearly between lower taxes, reduced spending, regulatory reform, entitlement reform, and debt reduction on one hand, and more debt, more government, and less freedom on the other. That means tough bills, tough votes, tough veto fights -- the kind of hard work conservatives inside Washington do only if held closely to account by conservatives outside Washington.

If conservatives around the country make sure Republicans follow through on their campaign rhetoric, they will drive the debate and ultimate choice in the next election. And 2012 will not only be the most important election of our lifetime, but also the happiest. 

Chris Chocola is the president of the Club for Growth.

Marjorie Dannenfelser

The pro-life movement scored important victories in the 2010 midterm election. Candidates' stances on the abortion issue, as well as their support or opposition to taxpayer funding of abortion in Obama's health care legislation, played a significant role. In fact, a poll sponsored by the National Right to Life Committee found that one-third of voters said abortion affected their vote. Of that one-third, 73 percent voted for a pro-life candidate, while only 26 percent voted for a pro-abortion one.

The SBA List's efforts to increase the number of pro-life women and decrease the number of pro-abortion women in Congress and state offices raked in major victories. We sought out and endorsed pro-life women leaders who will be voices for l ife on the floor of Congress and in state houses across the country. We also endorsed men running against pro-abortion women who have led the women's movement far off course with their abortion-centered understanding of feminism.

With several races still waiting to be called, we can already claim a 60 percent increase in the number of pro-life women in the U.S. House of Representatives and a 16 percent decrease in their pro-abortion counterparts. We can also count an increase in the number of pro-life women governors from one to four and a 70 percent success rate among our pro-life endorsed candidates -- men and women -- overall. This shift in numbers from pro-abortion to pro-life women is historic, and it is no accident. It is a corrective moment for the women's movement, which must either drop support for abortion as linchpin of its agenda or risk irrelevancy. This is especially evident in SBA List's head-to-head matchups with the pro-abortion EMILY's List -- SBA List candidates won 83 percent of the time.

Support for the health care reform bill -- which brought about the biggest expansion of abortion since Roe v. Wade -- played a significant role in the defeat of self-described "pro-life" Democrats who betrayed their constituents by voting for it. The Susan B. Anthony List successfully targeted and defeated 15 of these 20 so-called "pro-lifers" through our "Votes Have Consequences" project. The message sent by those defeats is unmistakable: you cannot call yourself pro-life at home then vote another way in Washington and get away with it.

Votes Have Consequences began more than a year ago when we toured the districts of so-called "pro-life" Democrats to rally support for the pro-life Stupak Amendment and opposition to the Senate version of the health care bill -- legislation that allows for taxpayer funding of abortion. When those Democrats caved and passed the Senate version, our mission had to change. And, by defeating 75 percent of them, we have unequivocally communicated that voting against the deeply held pro-life views of your constituency has serious political consequences.

In these key races, the pro-life movement flexed its muscles. Now our mission is to translate these pro-life electoral victories into legislative gains. Specifically, we will focus on passing legislation that repeals abortion funding in health care, defunds Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers, along with passing other life-saving legislation. The future for pro-life women -- and the pro-life movement as a whole -- looks very bright. 

Marjorie Dannenfelser is president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a national pro-life group that spent $11 million influencing the 2010 midterm elections.

Quin Hillyer

Now comes the hard part.

Clearly, this year's elections provided great reason for joy among Republicans and conservatives. Amidst the joy, though, please consider a few reasons for caution.

First, for whatever reason, Republicans slightly underperformed the final-week polls almost everywhere in the country. In polls in race after race in the Senate, and in the final two, much-ballyhooed, generic ballot surveys, Democrats looked to be in worse shape, by several points, than they ended up doing. And in the House, Republicans lost a slew of hair's-breadth races and in total numbers again slightly trailed the results predicted by the Real Clear Politics averages.

What this indicates is that, by hook or in some circumstances almost certainly by crook, the Democratic get-out-the-vote effort outperformed that of the Republicans. The surge of public opinion went the Republicans' way, but the Democrats still got their voters to the polls and won tough battles. As political trends ebb back to stasis in the next two years, then, Republicans must rebuild their ground game, because they may not be able to rely again on the unprecedented, frenetic energy brought to bear by the various Tea Party efforts.

The truth is that these elections were the easy part. Consolidating the gains for both Republicans and conservatives, in both policy and politics, will be a significantly harder job. And because Barack Obama, unlike Bill Clinton, will be unlikely to compromise, it will be more difficult to point to direct legislative accomplishments.

Rejoice, then, because conservatives are on the march. But it will indeed be a hard march, not a pleasant walk in the woods. 

Quin Hillyer is a senior editorial writer for the Washington Times and a senior editor for The American Spectator.

Matt Kibbe

The predominant media narrative coming out of the midterm elections will be that "gridlock," a legislative stalemate preventing President Obama or Republicans from accomplishing anything in the next two years, spells doom for average Americans. Funny how the media willfully promotes a view which is predicated on the liberal assumption that when the government does a lot of things it works much better.

It would be a mistake of Greek tragedy proportions for Obama to deny the message the American people sent him in this referendum on his first two years in office. That being said, I have no delusions that Obama will wake up tomorrow and become the fiscal conservative we need to restore America's economic sanity. But he would be well served to reach across the aisle on a few issues, yes, Tea Party issues, that this election has shown have broad appeal to all Americans.

Recently we conducted a poll to find out which Tea Party issues strongly resonate with all Americans. We found that 70 percent of Americans support reducing spending through a 10 percent cut in the federal budget. We found that 75 percent of Americans oppose candidates who run on the promise to return earmarks to their district. But most encouraging, we found that Americans feel that the Tea Party movement is more representative of mainstream America than the Democratic Congress by double-digit margins.

Well, the election and the polls are over. The GOP needs to stop using vague talking points. To truly rein in government spending everything must be on the chopping block, including defense and entitlement reform. Anything less signals that Republicans are not ready to make the tough decisions the Tea Party movement expects out of them.

Americans see our national debt as the 800-pound -- or should I say the $13 trillion gorilla -- in the room. They see pork barrel spending as supporting a culture of corruption and they understand intuitively, unlike Democrats, that you can't spend yourself out of debt.

The majority of Americans are prepared to start facing these realities, and all of our elected officials must be too. That's the real post-partisanship Obama spoke of so highly on the campaign trail in 2008. If he offers modest support for a few initiatives addressing spending and the national debt, it would go along way toward restoring the average American's confidence in our government acting responsibly. If he doesn't, Obama will be returning to that private sector he willfully neglects by the end of 2012. 

Matt Kibbe is president and CEO of FreedomWorks.

Philip Klein

The biggest story in the 2010 elections was the transition of the Tea Party movement from a ragtag group of citizens protesting federal government overreach to a formidable political force. Though Tea Party activists suffered some losses, overall their energy fueled the Republican comeback and helped elected more conservative candidates nationwide. The key question now is whether the movement can transition once again, this time to put pressure on Republicans to use their power to advance conservative ends and avoid becoming corrupted by Washington.

The Republican majority that reigned from 1995 to 2007 not only did little to limit the size and scope of government, but also actively expanded the federal role in education and passed the largest expansion of entitlements since the Great Society. The lawmakers themselves may deserve the most blame, but conservatives, too, should take a share of the responsibility for allowing them to get away with it. Had the Tea Party movement existed back then, could it have stopped the Bush-era GOP from passing legislation such as the Medicare prescription drug bill and No Child Left Behind? Could it have arm-twisted Republicans into enacting serious entitlement reform or drastically reworking the federal tax code?

One of the signs that the Tea Party movement represents a clear shift is to look at how successful it's been at fighting the party establishment. During the Bush era, conservatives were taken for granted as the party bosses pushed preferred candidates such as Arlen Specter and Lincoln Chaffee. Yet in this past election cycle, Tea Partiers helped drive Specter and Charlie Crist out of the party, electing Sens. Pat Toomey and Marco Rubio in the process. While Christine O'Donnell came up far short in Delaware, activists proved that they were willing to sacrifice a Senate seat to take a stand against liberal Republicans.

Political movements tend to form when one ideological group finds itself out of power and is desperate to make a change. That's how Barack Obama became president with overwhelming Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress. The true test for Tea Partiers will be whether they can sustain their energy and force Republicans to actually govern as conservatives, starting with the next Congress, but even more so should they amass more power in 2012. 

Philip Klein is The American Spectator's Washington correspondent.

Jeffrey Lord

So.

The results are in. More than 60 House seats, a half-dozen Senate seats, at least 10 new governorships as this goes to print. That's before you get to the hundreds of new state legislators.

And yet -- after a solid two years of the outrage, rebellion, and Tea Parties that produced all of this -- the call goes up in some GOP quarters for "tweaking" ObamaCare. Not repeal -- tweaking.

The way the strategy would unfold?

First, the newly Republican House would pass a repeal bill. Senate Republicans would try to do the same. Maybe they could manage the 60 votes -- maybe not. If they did accomplish this, with House and Senate on board the bill would be sent to the president, where a veto would happen in the blink of an eye.

What happens next is surely going to be the core of the GOP debate over the next two years -- and play a critical role in the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

Will the party leadership -- specifically Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and new Speaker John Boehner -- move to tweak? Or, as many conservatives are urging, keep sending the bill back for veto? Thus defining precisely the looming debate that has such momentous consequences for both the country and the GOP itself.

To tweak -- which the dictionary defines as "to make a minor adjustment to" is to find an area of agreement with President Obama on repeal of specific sections of the health care law -- and make that "minor adjustment." This in turn is seen by many conservatives as acquiescence in Obama's massive expansion of an already out-of-control federal government. Or, if you will, a betrayal not simply of conservative principle but all of the activists and voters who flooded voting booths to demand that ObamaCare be repealed outright. It is a signal flare that the GOP Establishment, the ruling class -- which has consistently produced losing presidential nominees or needlessly close winners -- is in effect taking Obama's side in the debate. We tried to repeal it, they will say, with a shrug of the shoulders. But the votes weren't there.

Which means: ObamaCare -- and Obama himself -- wins.

Is this really what this election was all about? Giving a half-hearted stab at repeal -- and then just rolling over as ObamaCare's grip on the American health care system tightens? Permanently?

Stay tuned. The next election has begun. 

Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania.

Grover G. Norquist

Clint Eastwood warned that "a man has got to learn his limitations." A Republican Party that controls the House of Representatives, but not the presidential veto or a 60-vote margin in the Senate to overcome filibusters, must first avoid believing that it runs the federal government. Equally importantly, it must remind the American people repeatedly that despite one good election it does not run the entire government.

Republicans must practice bifocal politics. They must present their long-term vision of limited government but also have a short-term strategy and set of tactics of how to maneuver this week, this month, for the next two years when they hold the House but not the presidency, or for the next four years when they lack real control of the Senate.

There are some things Republicans can do with control of just the House. They can pass repeal of ObamaCare through the House of Representatives -- knowing it will fail to overcome a filibuster in the Senate -- to keep faith with voters and to demonstrate our ultimate goal. They can hold hearings on the backroom deals that had lobbyists write ObamaCare and the millions of dollars that special interests spent to sell America on Obama/Reid/Pelosi's magnum opus. A Republican House can vote rifle shots into ObamaCare, repealing the tax hikes hidden in the 2,000-page legislation. This can force Democratic senators to cast votes in support of specific taxes in the bill and educate voters about tax hikes scheduled in the future.

The road to repealing ObamaCare, rolling back the overspending, and undoing the executive orders and agency rulings of the Obama administration runs through the 2012 presidential race and the 2012 and 2014 senatorial elections. Republicans can in 2012 elect a Republican president. With 23 Democrats and only 10 Republican senators up in 2012 they can capture a Republican -- even a conservative -- majority in the Senate and in 2014, with 20 Democrats and 13 Republicans up for reelection, they can win a 60-plus majority required for overcoming the unavoidable filibusters by an understandably embittered minority.

The Republican majority in the House should not underestimate its ability to move the rest of the party -- starting with presidential candidates. It was a failure of the 1994 Gingrich revolution that it did not present a 1996 Contract with America and invite all the Republicans running for president to adopt and campaign on this agenda. It allowed Dole in 1996 and Bush in 2000 to create the national GOP agenda. Not a wise move either time.

A self-confident Republican caucus in the House can offer 10 pieces of legislation that Obama has vetoed or the Senate Democrats filibustered and urge Republican candidates for president and Republican Senate candidates to campaign on the joint commitment that a GOP House, Senate, and president would pass -- and the president would sign -- the 10 bills.

Republicans in the past believed they were a presidential party unable to win or maintain congressional majorities. That has not been true since 1994 and yet the GOP acted as if it were true during the Bush years.

The GOP House caucus is the foundation of the construction of a conservative governing majority at the national level. It should set the agenda for the coming Republican presidential administration and the Senate 60-vote filibuster-proof Senate. 

Grover G. Norquist is president of Americans for Tax Reform.

Tony Perkins

The November 2 elections will have profound consequences for the economy, for health care, and for social issues. Some in the media are trying to say it was only about the economy, and that President Obama failed to connect only because he didn't explain himself clearly enough. "Not everyone went to grad school," said Chris Matthews, once again insisting that there's nothing wrong with the content of the liberal message -- only its delivery.

American voters are smart. They know what they do not want. The Republicans picked up more than 60 seats in the House and six in the Senate. This is a historic defeat for an incumbent party.

Values were near the forefront of voters' minds: in a survey commissioned by Concerned Women for America and conducted by respected pollster Kellyanne Conway of persons who voted on November 2, three-quarters cited the economy as their primary concern. But 62 percent (63 percent women) cited "the decline of morality and values" as reasons for their votes.

Voters strongly rejected ObamaCare. A key component of ObamaCare -- as Family Research Council has been pointing out for a year -- is forcing taxpayers to subsidize abortion-on-demand. Americans -- even millions who count themselves pro-choice -- strongly oppose federal funding of abortion. Opposition runs as high as 71 percent.

FRCAction PAC is an allied organization that targeted 20 members of the House -- including many who had voted pro-life until the critical moment when ObamaCare passed without a pro-life amendment. Of the 20 we targeted,  19 were voted out.

We saw an astonishing 680 seats in the state legislatures change hands. Most of those elected are conservative not only on fiscal issues, but also on social issues. In Maine, liberal lawmakers who created same-sex marriage in May 2009, only to be vetoed by voter initiative in November of that year, were voted out of office, handing the Maine house to Republicans for the first time since the 1970s, and the Maine senate for the first time since the 1990s.

Look at Iowa. Iowa is rightly regarded as a bellwether state, the "first in the nation" for selecting presidential candidates. Iowans trooped to the polls to wade through 72 judges up for a retention vote just to oust the three Supreme Court justices on the ballot who had arrogantly overturned the Hawkeye State's policy that marriage is between one man and one woman. This had never happened before in Iowa.

We have now seen true marriage affirmed by voters in 32 states. Marriage wins in conservative states. Marriage wins in liberal states. Marriage wins among Hispanics and black voters. If you talk about "outreach," marriage is clearly the place to take a stand.

Liberals call the social issues "wedge" issues. That's because they think middle- and lower-middle-income voters ought to be voting their "class interest." That's a fine Marxist way of thinking. In fact, social issues are "bridge" issues. They appeal to working families.

Ronald Reagan was elected 30 years ago by successfully combining economic freedom with strong defense and traditional family values. He built a winning coalition. Last November 2, that coalition showed every sign of coming back together. That's a truly "big tent," not a three-ring circus. 

Tony Perkins is president of the Family Research Council.

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