If the GOP learns only one lesson from it’s latest scalding by the Tea Party, it had better be this: get a handle on the ‘baggers before they put you in the country’s rearview in 2012. Last week, a Tea Party candidate played the familiar role of spoiler in a race that saw the Republican contender defeated in a GOP stronghold. Granted, the Democrat margin of victory was slim and plenty of Mediscare tactics were in play. But, the Republican would have won if the ‘bagger had not split the GOP vote.
The Republican leadership correctly identifies the Tea Party as a bigger problem than Democrat mismessaging on entitlements. They’re just not sure what to do about it. The immediate challenge for them is the fact that the ‘baggers have no national organization to grapple with. There is no official leadership or party structure. No authoritative committee to lobby.
The Tea Party has been described as a populist movement. In terms of formal association, it’s less than that. It’s a belief system embraced, with varying degrees of emphasis, by amorphous groups of local voters across the country. There is a national coalition but it’s a loose collection of self-styled conservative thought leaders with no control over Tea Party regulars. ‘Bagger candidates pop up in regions with local backing. Or the locals decide to endorse an existing contender who, by virtue of that support, is labeled a Tea Party candidate.
To be sure, national political figures like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann sometimes appear as Tea Party spokespersons. But, that’s by invitation rather than claim of right. The party is definitely a hodgepodge, which makes getting a let’s-talk-turkey handle on it difficult.
Meanwhile, although only 5 percent of the Tea Party is Democrat, it is doing more damage to the GOP than to Obama’s party. For every Marco Rubio, there’s a Joe Miller, Sharron Angle and Christine “I’m not a witch” O’Donnell. The latter two Tea Party wunderkind blew excellent opportunities for Republicans to boot a weakened Harry Reid and claim Joe Biden’s long-held seat. Believing negotiation is capitulation, Tea Party activists insist their elected congressional representatives toe a hard-line. But, when the game goes on with, or without you, taking your ball and going home is foolish, especially when it reduces a voting majority. This kind of stuff is enough to make the old guys living in trailers in the desert see Democrat Conspiracy stamped on every teapot.
In 2012, the ‘baggers will lack the voting power to beat Obama, but they stand a fair chance of shooting down the national GOP candidate. Undaunted, they seem to believe in the conservative radio talk show wisdom of 2008. Namely, that a Republican defeat would be good for the party. The reasoning then was that the GOP had moved too far from its roots and needed a severe course correction. Living life in the left lane for a few years was supposed to be just the jolt needed to right the party ship. The idea, then as now, is idiotic. Just look back over the past twenty nine months. Predictably, the cure has been worse than the disease, as the stimulus and ObamaCare loudly attest. There has to be a better way to fix ideological drift than Obama as president.
So, how do Republicans get a handle on the Tea Party? Keep them in the GOP fold, of course. Make Republican candidates attractive enough to support. But, there is a medium-to-large size risk in doing that: turning off independents. While the Tea Party might bring defeat to the GOP, independent votes are necessary for victory.
The answer to the dilemma is convincing enough of the electorate, regardless of party affiliation, that small ball is the smart government play. Reduce its size and power, but don’t abandon the little guy in the process. Obama’s biggest appeal is the nannyism in his big government vision, a shades-of-gray mediocracy. It shouldn’t be that hard to paint a much more attractive picture of an equal opportunity meritocracy. On the other hand, for a party very mediocre at communication, it may be too tall an order.
See you in the mirror.