According to media reports from liberal and conservative outlets alike, the Tea Party is somewhere between “tamed” and dead — the mainstream right helpfully suggesting the former while the left (which is to say most of the media) gleefully proclaim the latter. At the same time, the liberal message machine has issued new — and completely contradictory — talking points urging desperate Democrats to pronounce authoritatively that the Tea Party has “taken over” the GOP.
They’re all a little bit right, a little bit wrong, and completely missing the point.
With a few important exceptions, notably Ben Sasse’s victory in the Republican US Senate primary in Nebraska and Rep. Tom Cotton’s uncontested nomination in Arkansas which will have him challenging vulnerable Democrat Senator Mark Pryor, the Tea Party (to the extent that it can be talked about as a singular entity) is having a rough go of the 2012 primary season.
On Tuesday, a high-profile challenge to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was overwhelmed, with McConnell receiving 60 percent of the vote to 35 percent for Matt Bevin who, although supported by FreedomWorks and other Tea Party groups, ran a flawed and error-prone campaign. According to CNN, barely concealing its joy at a Tea Party candidate’s loss (even if to the senior Republican in the Senate), “Mitch McConnell crushed the tea party.”
Tea Party candidates also failed to beat “establishment” (whether or not incumbent) candidates in Republican primaries in Georgia, Idaho, and Oregon. This follows other Tea Party losses earlier in the month, including a challenge to Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) that left Boehner with nearly 70 percent of the vote in a three-person race.
The least hyperbolic media assessment came from the Wall Street Journal, which noted, “GOP sees primaries taming the tea party.” But it’s all downhill from there: The Washington Post’s resident establishment conservative, Jennifer Rubin, discusses “the tea party’s demise.” Down the hall, the Post’s Jaime Fuller says the Tea Party “isn’t just losing; it’s losing badly.” Writing for Fox News Latino, Rick Sanchez says “Good Bye Tea Party, We Hardly Knew Ye.” CNBC asks hopefully, “Is the tea party over?” And Time magazine suggests, “GOP rolls tea party in primaries” — following the liberal mantra that the Republican Party and the Tea Party are opponents, more the left’s fondest wish than a reality.
It’s an unfortunate unintended alliance: the Fourth Estate’s “mainstream” Republicans and their more numerous liberal brethren simultaneously hoping for and cheering a weakening of the Tea Party movement that threatens their respective spheres of dominance among the Beltway and Big Apple intelligentsia.
Not surprisingly, Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, sees it quite differently: Commenting for The American Spectator, Kibbe explains, “When the establishment runs on our issues to win political battles, we are winning the war. There is larger cultural shift happening here. Americans are sick of an arrogant and unchecked federal government. Because of grassroots challenges in the primaries, incumbents like Mitch McConnell had to go on the record and renew their commitment to constitutionally limited government. We have stronger Republican candidates in the general as a result. ”
Kibbe is right, which explains why Democratic political operatives have such a different message compared to the missing-the-forest-for-the-trees reporters and semi-expert pundits. Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie “Stop me before I selfie again” Wasserman Schultz argued on MSNBC that “The civil war that’s been raging in the Republican Party is really over. The tea party has won it.” She repeated the theme at a Wednesday morning press event.
Radical socialist, 9/11 “truther” and former Obama “Green Jobs Czar” Van Jones says, “It looks like the Tea Party might lose some of these battles, but they’ve already won the war.” He went on to parrot the Democratic talking point that “establishment Republicans now have been pulled so far to the right.” (Aren’t you just dying to know what the rest would have been, had he understood that that wasn’t a complete sentence?)
Kibbe and leftists agree: The Tea Party is influencing the GOP, causing Republican politicians to adhere more closely to conservative, pro-liberty, and free-market principles. The difference is that Kibbe thinks this impact is beneficial on both a political and a policy basis, while Democrats work to create a bogeyman of “extreme” Republicans — a caricature which has been effective in recent elections when terrible candidates like Todd Akin all but proved the point and Mitt Romney seemed incapable of relating to the ordinary American.
But the entire discussion misses a true understanding of why fewer Tea Party primary election victories is neither a surprise nor a tremendous disappointment — even to those of us whose political sympathies are more closely aligned with the Tea Party than with any other major political faction in the United States.
No doubt in many cases the presence of the Tea Party and the fear of a primary challenge has Republican incumbents behaving better (or at least promising to) than they did several years ago. And that’s a good thing; it also partly explains why Tea Party challengers had a harder time unseating them in 2014 than in 2010. But only partly.
People speak about the Tea Party as if it were a true political party, designed to stand alone, to grow through time. They speak about it the way one might speak of an expansion team in professional sports, looking for some modest early success, a path to transition, a new coach and a growing fan base, and finally a glorious path to the championship.
But a better metaphor for the Tea Party would be a vaccine, targeting the disease of Republicans who abandon principle in the interest of “getting along,” “doing something,” “bipartisanship,” or simply because being in power caused them to forget who they work for and why we hired them. For those of you who appreciate a medical pun, let’s call it the RINO-virus, infecting our national body politic and making many Americans feel truly sick.
Many of those RINO-viruses were, politically speaking, killed off in 2010 by the immunizing effects of the Tea Party on the GOP. Most surviving incumbents, except where extremely popular (a rare breed of congressman these days), are therefore less infected, perhaps less contagious, and thus less deserving of a rapid end to their political careers.
If a vaccine doesn’t kill a pathogen, then that pathogen is likely either dangerously resistant or not especially harmful. Like it or not, a Republican candidate who is utterly resistant to defeat by the Tea Party or one who is sufficiently conservative that a Tea Party candidate can’t show enough contrast to defeat her is likely to be a good bet in the general election.
That’s a big deal when a majority is at stake, not least in a Senate in which filibuster rules have been nuked by a petulant majority leader who seems to have forgotten the wisdom of Ted Striker: “I guess the foot’s on the other hand now…”
Still stinging from losing key races around the country in 2012, not least the presidency, Republican activists belatedly recognize (even though William F. Buckley made it clear years ago) that it’s better to have a decent candidate who can actually beat the Democrat than a philosophically pure candidate (Tea Partiers tend toward occasional idealism) who’s sure to get stomped.
Rand Paul understood this when endorsing Mitch McConnell — giving Tea Partiers implicit permission to stand with incumbents. Tea Party losses in Senate primaries in Georgia and Oregon where, as in Kentucky, the Democratic candidates are not to be underestimated, increase Republicans’ chances of taking control of the U.S. Senate in November’s elections.
Prior to the introduction of the MMR vaccine, a few million Americans were infected with measles each year. Though there are still occasional breakouts, the vaccine cut the incidence of the disease by more than 99 percent. When is the last time you heard a doctor complain that the number of measles cases isn’t declining? That’s because the number is so low already, except for when people do stupid things (like not vaccinating their kids, or electing liberal Republicans — each of which is certain to continue to happen at some low but still disappointing rate), that one would be foolish to expect substantial further declines. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be extraordinarily grateful for those non-cases which we don’t see.
The same goes for RINO-virus and the immunizing effect of the Tea Party: the disease, while not permanently eradicated, has been so severely degraded that the survival of more “establishment” candidates should not be a surprise, nor is it bad news. It is a sign of success, of an at-least-temporary victory over an infection which was rotting our one potentially redeemable major political party from the inside out.
Commenting on the lack of Tea Party success is the political equivalent of concluding that a vaccine isn’t effective — or, even more dangerously, isn’t necessary — because the number of cases (whether of measles or of RINO-virus) is not down 99.3 percent instead of 99.1 percent. As Bastiat told us, what’s really important, and the recognition of which is the sign of a good analysis, is “that which is unseen.” Those talking heads focusing on a few candidates’ losses are, perhaps intentionally, missing the point.
The GOP remains far from perfect, too often still part of the problem rather than the solution. But it is so much better than it was just four years ago when the RINO-virus was running rampant that it is barely recognizable as the same party. Immunization has allowed modestly beneficial evolution. Contrary to those reporters and pundits applauding the demise of the freedom movement, the Tea Party’s Republican vaccine, while not as effective as MMR, is doing just what it should be.